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Stop the politicking; work together

We are, as a nation, facing the biggest crisis we’ve ever faced. Thousands are sick, many are dying. The need for unity, at least unity of purpose, has never been greater. 

Yet we see our politicians playing the usual political games. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is quietly finding ways to punish Pakatan Harapan (PH) by withholding allocations for opposition MPs while dishing out extra funds for his own members.

PH is also playing politics by needlessly warning about food riots and the possibility that supply chain disruptions might lead to starvation. The anxiety level is already high and people are worried. Such talk is both alarmist and unhelpful. 

What the people expect of their elected representatives, particularly at a time like this, is that they will all put aside their differences and work together to protect and help the people.

We need to be bringing together our brightest and best – politicians, economists, financial experts, healthcare professionals, NGOs and representatives of other sectors – to craft the right strategy to respond to the needs of all Malaysians affected by the economic fallout from the crisis.

We have many smart and outstanding people; we need to exploit their talents and experience. The politicians must recognize their own limitations and understand they cannot do this alone.

Everyone talks about how adversely affected the B40 group and refugees and migrant workers are as a result of the movement control order but precious little is being done to actually help them. NGOs are doing what they can but it is not going to be enough. The government needs to respond immediately.

Over the last few days the media has carried reports of vegetables from Cameron Highlands and other parts of the country rotting because produce cannot be transported to consumers. Fishermen too are having to dump their catch because of similar problems. It is a disgrace that precious food is going to waste at a time when we need to conserve food.

The army with all its manpower, logistics and equipment should step in to help farmers and fishermen get their produce to consumers. Certainly, it will be more useful than manning roadblocks which the police are more than capable of doing on their own.

Clearly, there are lots of things – big and small – that can make a huge difference to all the people affected by the pandemic. Our healthcare workers show us what’s possible when there’s teamwork and dedication. So please, stop the politicking and get to work to serve the people of Malaysia.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |27th March]

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Leadership envy

In these days when news travels around the world faster than the speed of light, Malaysians can very quickly observe how our leaders stack up in comparison with other world leaders in managing the coronavirus pandemic.

Going by social media comments, many Malaysians think our leaders are doing a terrible job compared to say South Korea, Singapore or even Israel.

A video interview of South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha speaking about the pandemic, for example, drew thousands of admiring comments from people around the world. One Briton even wondered if it was possible to borrow her to lead the UK until the crisis passes.

In Malaysia, viewers praised Kang’s performance and envied Koreans for the calibre of their leaders. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, when we have ministers here talking nonsense on national television as the health minister did recently when he opined that drinking hot water could flush out the virus. He’s such an embarrassment to us all.

As well, in many countries, prime ministers have taken to giving daily briefing to keep the public informed; here we have “senior” ministers all talking at the same time and often contradicting each other. Where’s the prime minister?

But then again, I suppose it could be worse. Imagine having the current White House incumbent as our “wartime” leader. If bombast and false news could protect America from the crisis, America would be the safest place on earth right now.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur | 23rd March 2020]

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A heavy heart

In this Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, photo, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, gesture as he speaks during a press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has tendered his resignation to the king, his office reported Monday. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Saturday, 29th February 2020

My heart is heavy this morning. After almost a week of emotion, anger and frustration, it now looks possible that the very people we voted out of office after an epic struggle could return to power. Many of the people who right now stand accused of corruption and abuse of power will once again walk the corridors of power. The reform movement will die along with the hope for freedom and democracy. Corruption will once again soar. 

People will say, of course, that all this is a worst case scenario. Actually, it could be a case of history repeating itself. We’ve been there before, remember?

Muhyiddin might think he’s in charge but sooner or later UMNO-PAS will swallow them all up. And once they are in control, they will make sure they never lose power again.

How will Malaysians react? Will we just shrugged our shoulders and move on? With Malays conditioned to fear the Chinese and vice-versa , Muslims conditioned to think that Islam is being challenged, ordinary Malaysians worried about the rising cost of living and business elites looking to thrive in a culture of corruption, many might cheer the return of UMNO in the belief that it will be good for the country.

And who can blame them. PH and the reformists had their moment in the sun and they blew it spectacularly.

In my heart I’m still hoping for a miracle, that somehow, at the very last minute, saner minds will prevail and we will yet again witness the kind of miracle we saw on that May night in 2018.

Strangely, I find myself also hoping that somehow Mahathir himself – despite all he has done – will find a way to break the impasse and save the nation from UMNO-PAS.

Its not the public but the politicians who need educating

Commenting on the recent Timah whiskey controversy, former deputy Dewan Rakyat speaker Azalina Othman Said opined in Parliament that the government should find ways to better educate the public “to think in a more logical manner”. Deputy Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Rosol Wahid also talked about the need to produce a more “mature society”. 

They are being disingenuous; it is not the Malaysian public but Malaysian politicians that need to be educated, think logically and be more mature.

The whole Timah whiskey issue became controversial only because politicians from PAS, UMNO and even PKR choose to make it an issue for political purposes. Before that, most Malaysians – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – knew nothing about the whiskey which was registered about two years ago without controversy. 

Indeed, a Malay colleague in my WhatsApp chat group said that the Timah whiskey controversy was actually a non-issue among his friends and in their chat groups. If anything, they were embarrassed by it all. As for non-Malays, I can tell you that it just makes them dislike all these politicians with an even greater intensity than before. 

Most Malaysians actually want nothing more than to live in peace with all their neighbours and get on with their lives. It is the politicians who are always stoking up racial and religious sentiment so they can pose as champions of race and religion. They are intellectually and morally bankrupt; race and religion are just tools they use to distract attention from their corruption and failure to govern our nation properly. 

Perhaps Azalina should use her new position as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister to convince the government to compel our politicians to go back to kindergarten to learn the basics about respect and tolerance for diversity in a multicultural nation.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | Friday, 29th October 2021

Passion Versus Privilege

Another article that caught my eye last week was the story of how Loi Tuan Ee, who grew up in Sitiawan, Perak, gave up a high-paying job in 2008 to pursue his passion for agriculture and dairy farming.  Today, his company – The Holstein Milk Company – supplies more than half of the fresh milk in the country, reducing Malaysia’s dependence on imported dairy produce.

Needless to say, it took a great deal of sacrifice, risk and hard work to succeed. Along the way, Khazanah Nasional, the strategic investment arm of the government, was impressed enough to take up a 30% share of his company and provide him with much-needed capital to further expand his business.  What a success story! We can all take pride in his achievements.

The success of the Holstein Milk Company, of course, invites comparison with another venture – the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) – that was set up in 2011 with a RM250 million government loan. It ended up a total fiasco with allegations of corruption, nepotism and breach of trust. The chairman of the company, the husband of a senior politician from the ruling party, was charged with criminal breach of trust but was later acquitted after the prosecution decided to drop the charges against him.

Today, nothing remains of the grandiose venture, part of the “national beef valley” project which was intended to help the nation achieve self-sufficiency in beef. It is not even clear whether the government was able to recover the full amount of the loan.

The government should draw the appropriate lessons from these two stories. Instead of dishing out easy money to well-connected cronies with little experience, it should reward the hard work, sacrifice and entrepreneurship of men like Loi. Kudos to Khazanah Nasional for looking past Loi’s ethnicity to his entrepreneurial skills. If we want to surge ahead, the government needs to stop funding freeloaders and start respecting and rewarding real entrepreneurship irrespective of race. 

Back to the Holstein Milk Company; I hope its success will not lead the political cronies who now infest our nation like a plague of flies to pressure Loi to hand over a 51% stake of his company. Successful businessmen can never be too careful these days. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | Monday, 11th October 2021]

Our indolent & corrupt political culture

There was an interesting snippet of news from Austria yesterday. Sebastian Kurtz, the very popular and well-liked Chancellor of Austria announced he was stepping down from office after allegations surfaced that he had used government funds to ensure positive coverage in a newspaper. He said he was stepping down so he could clear his name without disrupting the business of government. That is what responsible politicians do when faced with corruption allegations. Besides, the people of Austria expect nothing less of their leaders.  

Of course, it immediately made me think of our own situation. Here we have a former prime minister – a man convicted of misappropriating public funds, criminal breach of trust and money laundering – still attending parliament, getting appointed head of the backbenchers’ club, and dishing out advice on good governance to the nation. And he is not alone. Several others continue to linger on despite facing dozens of charges. They have no shame, no sense of remorse, no respect for the people. 

Surely, it is an indolent and corrupt political culture that allows convicted felons and those charged with massive corruption to carry on with business as usual, to pretend that they are really good and decent politicians interested only in the welfare of the people. We, the people, are to blame, too, for allowing them to get away with it. We are far too tolerant of malfeasance and corruption and far too easily influenced by personalities instead of principles. We have set the bar so low that even crooks can now masquerade as patriots. 

Recently, Pandora’s Box was opened and several of our political leaders were found to have hidden accounts in the British Virgin Islands. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called for the matter to be discussed immediately in Parliament. The Speaker, however, nixed the idea, saying it was of no immediate importance. It is precisely this kind of attitude that led me to conclude in my recent book – Paradise Lost: Mahathir & the End of Hope – that the battle against corruption is over and we have lost. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | Sunday, 10th October 2021]

Is it about drink-driving or pushing a religious agenda?

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The way some of our politicians are getting worked up about the whole drink-driving issue makes me wonder whether other agendas are driving the issue.

Let’s get one thing straight: drink-driving (or driving while intoxicated) is just plain wrong. It endangers innocent lives and must never be tolerated. Many countries have very strict drink-driving laws and rightly so.

Clearly, Malaysia has a drink-driving problem. Clearly, it needs to be addressed head-on. The sensible thing to do is to review existing legislation to ensure it is adequate to discourage drink-driving. We also need a campaign to educate citizens that it’s dangerous, immoral and plain reckless to drink and drive. If we need tougher laws, so be it; few have any sympathy for those who drink and drive and endanger the lives and limbs of others.

But let’s also remember that drink-driving (and drug-driving) is part of a much wider problem. Some reports suggest that Malaysia has the highest road fatality risk (per 100,000 population) among ASEAN countries with more than 50% of road fatalities involving motorcyclists.  Nearly 6,000 deaths and 25,000 injuries are reported each year on our roads. The highest numbers of motorcycle fatalities occurred in rural locations (61%).

And yet, we do not see the same outrage, the self-righteous demands for tougher action. If road safety (rather than religious or political posturing) is the primary concern, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve driver training and education and enforcing the helmet, seat belt and other traffic laws nationwide?

Interestingly, when former finance minister Lim Guan Eng proposed (in February this year) increasing the penalties for drink-driving (and driving under the influence of drugs), many of the politicians who are now so agitated about the issue had nothing much to say. That should tell us something.

Whatever it is, the campaign against drink-driving shouldn’t be exploited for religious or political purposes by politicians desperate for something to distract public attention from their own backdoor scheming. Politicising the issue does noting to enhance road safety or solve the problem of drink-driving.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 6th June 2020]

Crooks, the whole lot of them

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The slew of accusations now being traded between former leaders about corruption, nepotism and malfeasance in office has, no doubt, confirmed what most Malaysians have long suspected: that their leaders are all corrupt and untrustworthy.

They come around waving the flag and pretending to be great patriots but they are just opportunists out to enrich themselves and their cronies. No wonder they say that in Malaysia politics is the most lucrative profession of all.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who you vote for because they are all the same. Either way, the voters are screwed!

We have truly become a kleptocracy – government of kleptocrats, by kleptocrats, for kleptocrats – in every sense of the word.

“Politics: “Poli” a Latin word meaning “many” and “tics” meaning “bloodsucking creatures”.” ― Robin Williams

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |17th May 2020]

Pigs in the house?

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There was an interesting article in the media last September about the state of Malacca being invaded by pigs from across the Strait. Apparently, they were abandoning their habitat for greener pastures.

Barely a month later, there was another newspaper headline that read “Question on pigs sparks off heated exchange at Melaka state assembly.”

It looks like the problem has gotten much worse since then. Latest reports out of the Malacca state assembly appear to suggest that even the august assembly might now be affected. At a recent sitting, one member repeatedly kept sounding the alarm about pigs – “babi! babi! babi!” he repeatedly shouted.

Perhaps the Wildlife Department or a reputable pest control agency should be called in to catch the pigs and release them into the wild where they belong. No word yet as to whether the Agriculture Department will classify the site a pigsty since it clearly has a problem with pigs.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |17th May 2020]

 

Making policy on the fly

It looks like our Federal Territories Minister is hopelessly confused.

In announcing the closure of pubs and restaurants that serve alcohol for the remainder of the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) period, for example, he opined that “Pubs that serve food are not restaurants. Even if it is a restaurant that has a pub, it is not considered a restaurant.” [The Star, 5th May 2020]

Worse still, his decision to close all establishments that serve alcohol during the CMCO period appears to be based on nothing more than hearsay – someone apparently told him that some customers in a pub somewhere were not observing the rules about social distancing. Instead of investigating the matter and appropriately sanctioning the establishment concerned, he closes all establishments that serve alcohol. 

If he applied the same yardstick to other establishments, he would have to close all restaurants or factories if one of them is found to be negligent.

If the rules are obeyed, what reason can there be to close pubs or restaurants that serve alcohol? After all, the objective of CMCO is to contain the spread of a virus, not impose the religious views of one group upon the rest of us. It looks like whenever alcohol is mentioned, knee-jerks responses are the norm.

It is yet another example of the arbitrary use of power and of making decisions on the fly that is becoming a hallmark of this backdoor government. 

Fortunately, we still have some professionals left in the bureaucracy to correct the impulsive and irresponsible actions of our ministers. DBKL has now clarified that restaurants with valid liquor licences are allowed to operate under CMCO.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 7th May 2020]

Should Mahathir be Leader of the Opposition?

Now that it is no longer in government, Pakatan Harapan needs to appoint someone to be leader of the opposition. Incredibly, one of the names being considered is none other than Dr Mahathir Mohamad!

What are PH leaders thinking? Mahathir is, after all, the person who is most responsible for the downfall of PH. He’s the man who was scheming to do in Anwar and keep him from becoming prime minister despite promising to hand over power to Anwar as agreed to by PH leaders before the election. After all that he has done, he is the last person who should be appointed opposition leader.

Besides, it would be simply preposterous, even ridiculous, to have the PPBM president sitting as government leader in parliament and the PPBM chairman sitting as leader of the opposition! PPBM has made its choice. Mahathir can join them or sit with the opposition; what he shouldn’t be allowed to do is to helm PH again as its de facto leader.

I, for one, will have zero respect for PH if it doesn’t have the common sense to say, “Enough is enough. Never again!”

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |26th April 2020]

Should the government spam the people?

Like many Malaysians I’ve been getting almost daily messages from the National Security Council (MKN) and other government agencies about the Covid-19 situation. I understand that we are in an emergency situation and the government might find the need to inform the public through all available means about urgent measures that need to be observed 

Still, as a citizen of a free country, I’d like to have the right to decide who can and cannot send me text messages. Besides, 51 messages in less than 5 weeks feels like harassment more than anything else and I want out.

On its website, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) defines spam as “electronic ‘junk mail’ – messages sent to a person’s mobile phone that they have not consented to receive.” Can unsolicited messages from MKN and other agencies then be deemed as spam?

MCMC advises those who receive spam on their mobile phones through short codes to report the matter; but what do you do when the government itself is spamming you by sending you unwanted messages?  What is worse, it is not possible to respond to them and neither can their messages be blocked.

And now it seems that the messages are not just about issues related to the MCO; one message that came recently advertised a special interview with the prime minister on TV. What next? Is this going to become a regular way for the government to communicate with the people? Who exactly controls this channel of communications? Who decides how it is used? Can citizens opt out of it?

As new technologies for mass surveillance, control and the dissemination of information become available, civil society must ensure that there is transparency and accountability; that new technologies will be deployed in ways that are consistent with our democracy. If we are not careful, there is a very real danger that we might quickly find ourselves in a PRC-type police surveillance state where government messaging becomes stifling. We should take nothing for granted especially with a backdoor government in power.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 26th April 2020]

What a cock-up!

The sheer incompetence of some of our ministers is amazing. They seem to be stumbling from one snafu to another – suggesting warm water could flush out the virus, strutting around in protective gear for no particular reason, encouraging housewives to act like Doraemon or be stoic in the face of domestic abuse, etc. And then there was the proposal to reopen barber shops, a proposal that was so ridiculous that even our barbers said thanks but no thanks.

While some of these antics bring much needed comic relief, others can be downright irritating. Take the decision by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to ask companies that want to operate during the MCO period to apply for permission online. Within hours, so many companies tried to access the MITI website that it predictably crashed.

In its defence, the ministry complained that online traffic had surged to 176,000 users within the first two hours the system went online. The ministry has now promised to get the system up and running again. 

The big question, of course, is why the ministry was unprepared for the deluge in applications? Surely, it should have anticipated that thousands of desperate companies are anxious to get back to business. But this is what happens when ministers make policies without thinking through all the implications. 

Perhaps, if ministers took the trouble to consult with their civil servants before rushing to make statements, such fiascos might not happen.

Besides, wouldn’t it have been more efficient to simply list the industries that can operate together with the necessary guidelines instead of asking each and every company to apply for permission? Now they are even asking companies which have already obtained approval (under phase one of the MCO) to reapply for permission “so that their approval letters will follow the new format that comes with a QR code.” How bureaucratic can they get?

That this should happen after a similar incident when thousands rushed to unprepared police stations at the early stages of the MCO to seek approval to travel out of town suggests that the government’s capacity to learn from its mistakes is indeed very limited.

It’s hard to have confidence in the government when we see these things happening with such frequency. And, when it happens at a ministry headed by a supposedly high-flyer like Mohamed Azmin Ali, it is all the more depressing.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |15th April 2020]