On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Listen to rustling of the grassroots

Assuming that I know more about politics than them, they often ask me about the
inner workings of government and unprintable gossip about politicians.

This time, over several rounds of drinks at the Evergreen
Laurel Hotel in Gurney Drive, they wanted to know my views about the SRK (C)
Damansara relocation issue, the Malay unity talks, the defeat of Barisan
Nasional in the Lunas by-election, the growing strength of PAS, and whether
Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad will still lead the country in the near

They were upset with the slide in the standard of English. Some of them spoke
about having to reject a number of job applicants, mostly local graduates, who
could not speak or write proper English.

They asked how local computer science graduates passed their exams when they
could hardly string a sentence in English.

My friends, who are in their early 40s, are well-informed and well-read. Their
jobs require them to travel extensively, especially to China and Hong

Impressed by the pace of development in East Asia, they are understandably
concerned with the lack-lustre performance of the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange.
They accept that the KLSE is not the sole indicator of the country's economic
performance but they wish there was more foreign investment to boost the

I was told of remisiers who have had no commission for the past six months –
zero transaction on some days – because the market is so bad. Most have taken
to selling mutual funds but it's already a crowded field now.

The sentiments of my pragmatic and practical friends must be of concern to the
ruling coalition.

Just a year ago, they had all voted for Barisan in the general election. Now,
they say they need more assurances from our national leaders.

They still regard themselves as pro-establishment but want the government
leaders to pull up their socks and tackle issues with greater sincerity.

On discussing the SRK (C) Damansara issue with me and those who now live in
Petaling Jaya, my Penang friends were upset that a relocation matter had turned
into a national controversy.

In fact, it had become an international issue, I told them. In its report, a
foreign news agency had given the impression that the Government wanted to
close down the school.

The matter was linked to the Vision Schools project. What the news agency
failed to state clearly was that 95% of the parents wanted to move temporarily
to SRK (C) Puay Chai II. Neither did the report give sufficient information on
the poor condition of the Damansara school.

My old friends were disgusted with those adults who used children in staging a
demonstration and forcing the kids to study in a make-shift classroom in a
nearby temple.

Still, they wished the Education Ministry had handled the matter better. They
felt there was not enough consultation and explanation to the villagers,
resulting in confusion.

The DAP, they said, assumed it had taken up a popular cause, forgetting that
the majority of the parents concerned were also voters in the constituency.

My friends' bashing of the Education Ministry continued with their unhappiness
over the lack of political will to arrest the deterioration of the English
Language among our students.

I cannot help but agree with them that it's all talk and no action from our
decision-makers on this issue.

It's pointless to keep on lamenting that students are doing badly in English.
Drastic measures are needed to cure the illness.

What disturbed my friends the most is the exploitation of communal issues. They
are bewildered how some politicians and vernacular newspapers still believe
that the use of communal sentiments will regain lost votes.

They were unforgiving over statements made against the Chinese community,
particularly with reference to being an ungrateful lot. Neither were they
amused with an opposition politician's perception that they were

My friends think some of our leaders, including those from Barisan, are out of
touch with the feelings of common folk. Although unhappy with these politicians,
my friends don't consider the alternative as being convincing enough for them

But they have noticed that in recent months, the Opposition has been trying to
make itself look moderate and fair.

PAS and Parti Keadilan Nasional have talked about national unity instead of
Malay unity because they seem certain of retaining the Malay votes. Both are
now preparing to win over the Chinese votes.

The fight for the next general election, due in 2004, has begun – and it's
getting tougher each day. For Umno, it has to win back the Malay votes without
losing non-Malay votes.

My friends wonder how the ruling coalition will tackle several issues and what
steps will be taken to gain the support of new voters, especially those below
30 years old.

Not too long ago, the Prime Minister announced that Umno leaders would now sit
with ordinary party members when they attend functions. The leaders are not to
huddle together at the main table.

It is good for leaders to hear what the ordinary rakyat has to say, and help them
understand grassroots sentiments.

This practice should be extended to all Barisan leaders and top government
officials. It's time they hear the aspirations of the rakyat in order to
formulate more effective policies.

My friends reckon that the Year of the Snake will be a politically interesting
one. The snake has been perceived as a dangerous and untrustworthy creature but
also an intelligent, quick and useful reptile.

Likewise, we can look at things in a positive or negative light.