On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Overseas trip that makes little sense

Last week, it was reported that 10 Selangor PAC members and officials who had agreed to go on the aborted RM80,000 study tour – criticised as a disguised holiday tour – would have had to foot the full cost for the trip.

The Jan 18 trip was aborted at the 11th hour after Sekinchan assemblyman and PAC member Ng Suee Lim blew the whistle and alleged that the tour was a waste of public funds.

He had highlighted the itinerary of the eight-day trip, including a cruise on the Nile, a belly dance performance, and visits to tourist spots. The trip was aborted with the PAC saying it lacked a quorum after Ng pulled out.

The likelihood is that it had to call off the trip following a public uproar but the matter is unlikely to end there. It is understood that Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohamed Khir Toyo, who returned from his haj yesterday, is peeved that he was not informed about the study tour. Neither was the trip approved by the state executive council.

It would be interesting to find out what the Sultan of Selangor, who was in Mecca with Dr Mohamed Khir, thinks about the controversy, knowing his passionate concern for the interest of the people.

PAC chairman Datuk Mohamed Idris Abu Bakar was not the leader of the tour delegation because he was unable to go. Public flak had been directed at his deputy, Datuk Ahmad Bhari Abdul Rahman.

His press statements to punish Ng by insisting that the opposition politician should pay for the aborted trip by deducting his monthly allowance has gone down badly. He has made the DAP man a hero, as a result.

Adding fuel to the fire, Ahmad has warned Ng that he must be ready to face the consequences of his action and that the PAC was ready to pursue the matter. This only makes Ahmad look vindictive.

Worse, he was also quoted as saying that the cancellation of the visit would "anger" Malaysian students at the Al Azhar University because they were scheduled to meet the delegation. That is hardly convincing.

Since when do our leaders really care about the sentiments of our students? He should be more worried about whether the millions of Selangor taxpayers are angry.

There's more to come. Some PAC members have admitted privately that while Egypt was not a debatable destination, they insisted that the itinerary was a first draft submitted in December by the tour agent who did not know what the lawmakers had in mind.

One PAC member, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted that the draft was submitted on Jan 7 and that it was normal for changes to be made as tour members had met regularly before the trip.

Meetings with Egyptian leaders and politicians needed to be confirmed before the tour and the replies were sent a few days before the departure date, said the PAC member.

He said Ng was present at three meetings to approve the itinerary and that the PAC had "audio recording" of the meetings.

Asked whether he could produce the evidence, he said it would be done at the next state assembly meeting. The same assemblyman said two other trips by the PAC to New Zealand and India was attended by DAP members.

There is nothing wrong in making overseas visits if they can help improve the performance of our elected representatives and government officials. Investment trips, for example, are necessary if we wish to compete with other countries.

When an official trade delegation is led by the Mentri Besar or Chief Minister, investors can get on-the-spot approval instead of having to deal with red tape later on. There is a distinct difference between trade and study trips.

The point is that elected representatives and government officials must be extra careful when it comes to public money. As for PAC members, enough statements have been made over their role as guardians of public accountability.

Instead of letting the controversy drag on with statements of retaliation, it might be wise for the PAC to just apologise to the taxpayers for their poor judgment. It was a bad call – full stop.

The DAP politician has done his job as an opposition member and if he had exploited the situation, that is simply politics. Righteousness and principles may not be on the dictionary of most politicians, even if they spout these virtues freely in their speeches, but PAC members must have some sense of accountability.

As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi correctly pointed out, what was the point in spending public money for a trip filled with visits to tourist spots and watching belly dancing?

The controversy should serve as a lesson to all state governments planning foreign trips.