24September2020

Agenda Daily

DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER

How does a magazine strive to present the truth when it is denied information?

 


By A Kadir Jasin

Many readers, via letters and direct approaches to us, think that we are getting mushy on issues. We are not hard-hitting enough. They say we should do more digging.

On the other hand, as made clear by letters and clarifications that we have published, there are those who think we are being unnecessarily harsh, unfair and mischievous.

What many outside the journalism world may not be aware of is that information, by that I mean correct, reliable information, is hard to come by.

There’s a price to be paid when you don’t go with the flow. As an example, we were refused participation at the media briefing for last year’s launch of the Ninth Malaysia Plan. The excuse was, we are a magazine. Only mainstream newspapers, news agencies, radio and television stations were invited.

Despite such mantras as transparency, accountability and openness, many in positions of power – in the government and, to a lesser degree, industry – continue to be exceedingly secretive and defensive.

There appears to be a misconception and misunderstanding of what constitutes criticism. Many have tended to confuse being analytical with being critical. Even if we are sometimes critical of an issue or a policy, it does not mean we are against the people or parties to which the issue and policy belong. But we have been made to pay the price nevertheless.

With apologies, I would like to share a very personal experience that this publication has gone through in recent times. It concerns the bulk sale of this magazine to a large government-linked company (GLC).

This was an old arrangement that went back to the mid-1990’s. It was entered into when the GLC was in private Bumiputera hands. It was and still is not usual for publishing companies to sell their newspapers and magazines to bulk purchasers at a special price.

That’s the case with the newspapers and magazines you read on the planes and executive lounges at airports and waiting rooms of large companies.

The uptake of this magazine was progressively reduced from several thousand to zero in under a year on the pretext of cost saving.

In recognition of the fact that the company has been a business partner for a very long time and is undergoing restructuring, I personally made an offer to supply several hundred copies on a quid pro quo basis.

The offer was not taken up. But I must in all fairness admit that this magazine, including this column, has written several reports and comments about the company, its rivals and the key people associated with it, which were deemed to be critical or unfavourable.

But such is the journalism business. A journalist is neither a friend nor foe. He is just a messenger. Still, the history of mankind is littered with the severed heads of messengers. The bearers of bad news are not always welcomed at the gates of corporate headquarters.

China loan not the cheapest

NEWS is news. Sooner or later, it’ll come out in the open and there are enough intelligent and well-informed readers out there who will scrutinise it and ask to know more.

So I was not surprised when Tokoh Kewartawanan Negara (National Journalism laureate) Tan Sri Mazlan Nordin, when speaking at a Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia colloquium on July 25, suddenly raised the subject of Malaysia’s RM2.7 billion loan from China to finance the construction of the Second Penang Bridge.

His poser was not economic or financial but political. He wanted the participants to understand the socio-political implications of the US$ 800 million maiden loan from the booming communist nation for a project in the only state to have a Chinese Chief Minister.

Mazlan was my ‘boss’ and mentor from 1970 when he was appointed the Editor-in-Chief of the national news agency, Bernama, and I was a junior reporter in Alor Star.

Mazlan was having in mind the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussain’s groundbreaking visit to China in 1974 just months before he called the first general election after the suspension of Parliament in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots.

The visit and subsequent establishment of diplomatic relations with China went down extremely well with the Chinese voters in Malaysia.

Mazlan’s brief reference to the China loan set me thinking. Is the loan ‘the most favourable’ that Malaysia has ever received from a foreign government as was claimed?

A New Straits Times (NST) report dated July 14 headlined ‘China Loans RM2.7b For Second Penang Bridge’ quoted the Second Finance Minister, Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, as saying ‘an interest rate of 3% over 20 years was the most favourable offered to a foreign country’.

If I understand the minister’s statement correctly and assuming the NST quoted him accurately too, this is the cheapest loan that China has ever given to any country.

We thank China for treating us favourably. That, no doubt, is an important endorsement, coming as it did from the most populous and fastest-growing country in the world economically.

But the loan does not look like one-way traffic. In return for it, China’s construction company, China Harbour Engineering Company, has been awarded one of the project’s packages.

At 3% per annum for 20 years, the China loan is neither the cheapest nor the most favourable that Malaysia has received. This is a fact the NST report had not highlighted.

For the sake of transparency, accountability and openness, let us be a little bit more detailed and analytical.

We had in the past been obtaining foreign sovereign loans at much lower interest rates. As recently as last year, we obtained an educational loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) for as low as 1.2% with a repayment period of 25 years and a seven-year grace period.

That’s an educational loan. Even for infrastructure projects like electricity generation, water treatment, sewerage and the KL International Airport, the interest rates of JBIC loans were either similar or significantly lower than that of the China loan, and the repayment period longer — ranging from 25 to 40 years — with seven to 10 years of grace period. Some social project loans carry interest rates as low as 0.7%.

I don’t know if Japan is no longer extending us these cheap loans. I am certainly not saying that we should not borrow from China. We should. China is an important economy and we want to be a partner.

But such key considerations as exchange rates, interest rates and repayment periods are also important as they will eventually impact upon the bridge-users who will be paying the toll charges.

No less important is the fact that a loan as big as this is bound to have a significant impact on the benchmarking of our international credit standing.

Then there’s the question of what we should do with the massive domestic liquidity. The Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) alone has an estimated RM300 billion in cash and assets.

Would it not have been better for the government to borrow more domestically, even if it means paying a higher interest rate? The interest payment remains in the country, the loans are not exposed to currency fluctuations and national funds like the EPF can more easily employ their capital.

I may be wrong, terribly wrong in my analysis. If I am, I stand corrected. We practise the right of reply in this magazine and all aggrieved parties are welcome to write to us.

Not enough jobs to go around

STILL on the economy, I am bothered by a July 24 report in The Star newspaper which quoted the executive director of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER), Datuk Dr Mohamed Ariff Abdul Kareem, as saying the economy is facing the challenge of fewer jobs.

This is contrary to official reports and claims that we are either in a state of full employment or are about to reach that lofty height.

The newspaper report said MIER has identified growing unemployment as one of the challenges facing the economy. Mohamed Ariff said although the economy was growing at a healthy rate, it was not creating enough jobs.

‘There is a low correlation between Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and job creation. Last year, the economy created 200,000 jobs, fewer than in 2005,’ he said at MIER’s 12th regional corporate economic briefing in Kuching.

He said this was mainly due to the economy undergoing major structural changes — moving away from labour-intensive to skills and knowledge-intensive.

‘This is something we have to learn to live with and we will have to go for quality in our workforce rather than quantity,’ he said.

That is well and good if members of the workforce, especially those displaced by the structural changes, can be retrained.

The question is, how much is being done to retrain these people and how much more is being done to ensure that new entrants to the job market have the skills to fit into the structurally changing economy?

Mohamed Ariff provided us with a very disquieting thought when he said Malaysia depended too much on immigrant workers. That’s a fact.

In fact, our lackadaisical attitude towards education, training and employment is creating a class of marginalised and disenfranchised Malaysians. These are people who cannot even compete with illegal Indonesian or Bangladeshi workers for jobs.

The argument is simple and basic. An Indonesian maid can survive on a RM500-a-month salary and a Bangladeshi construction worker on RM1,000. The former is fed, clothed and housed by her employer.

The latter lives in a kongsi and shares food with his co-workers. Both have enough money left to send back to their dependants at home.

Can a Malaysian school-leaver live on an income of RM500 a month and a father of two on RM1,000? The answer is no. On that meagre income they have to pay rent, buy food, pay for transportation and a string of other necessities.

The rise in the prices of essential consumer goods and services in recent years and the disparity in the distribution of wealth are in danger of marginalising and impoverishing more Malaysians.

Is someone not telling the truth?

BUT it’s not all gloom and doom. Some of our leaders are still capable of entertaining us and making us forget our woes, albeit temporarily, with their statements and antics.

As we have read in the newspapers, the ceiling of the Sultan Abdul Halim Hospital cafeteria recently leaked – the fifth such incident since the hospital started operations in December.

Its director, Dr Hariff Fadzilah Che Hashim, said that inconsiderate people had clogged the pipes with sanitary pads and disposable napkins.

These menstruating patients must be a terrible lot. They have now caused the sanitation pipes to clog and burst five times due to their irresponsible act.

Either that or somebody is not telling the truth. Don’t tell me that other hospitals and, for that matter, other public buildings with sanitation pipes do not suffer such abuse.

Instead of blaming the female patients and old men in disposable napkins each time a pipe breaks and a toilet overflows, I think the people responsible for building and maintaining hospitals, in particular the Public Works Department, whose slogan is Jasa Kepada Rakyat (Service to the People), should look at the quality of work.

Maybe there’s a flaw in the piping system by way of design, the materials used or the workmanship.

Alternatively, they should insist that female sanitary towels and napkins be banned from all hospitals, starting with the ‘fragile’ Sultan Abdul Halim Hospital.

But don’t do it now. Do it after the general election. If it’s done now, the government may, figuratively, flush a lot of votes down the toilet.

As for the leaking Parliament, which Works Minister Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu said was due to heavy rain, may I humbly suggest that the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Parliamentary Affairs, Datuk Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, hire a world-class bomoh hujan to drive away the rain from Parliament House.

The Star quoted Samy as saying that heavy rainfall had contributed to the leakage but he complained that some critics refused to accept it.

He blamed his critics, whom he said sat in offices and were thus unaware that the rain pattern had changed throughout the world.

Either The Star was humouring the minister or Samy was trying to take absurdity to a higher level.

If you live in Kuala Lumpur, it is immaterial whether you work in air-conditioned offices or in the sun, you would know that the city had been soaked by rain for several days recently and that thousands of people were flooded out of their homes.

But the fact that Parliament House has been leaking rainwater is not new. Yes, the building is old by today’s standards, but not 50 years as Samy Vellu put it. It’s only 44 years old. It was completed in 1963 at a cost of RM18 million. Incidentally, there are many older government buildings which do not leak.

Yes, we know that it rained and flooded in England and the United States. But did Westminster and the Capitol Building leak too?

Even if they did, that is not our problem. Our problem is our Parliament leaks and RM12 million of taxpayers’ money will be spent to rectify it after RM90 million was spent restoring its interior in 2005.

But what is RM12 million to repair the temple of our democracy when a newer building that shelters our Prime Minister and his family was repaired and renovated last year at almost the same cost – RM12.5 million — according to a Parliament report?

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