Author Archives: wcw

Too close to home

Covid-19 has clawed its way out of our screens and into our lives.

THERE are some good lessons Malaysians can pick up as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the nation.

It’s still not too late to learn what we can from the first Movement Control Order (MCO), implemented in March last year.

Admittedly, many of us slacked off in observing the SOPs.

Our frontliners did a good and swift job in containing the spread of the virus. Many of us would agree that we did better than Singapore when they were trying to battle the growing numbers among foreign workers in congested hotels.

Even then, many of us felt the same problem would eventually hit us because we have more foreign workers, legal or otherwise.

We were sitting on a time bomb, and now, our fears have been proven correct based on the outcome of the Social Security Organisation (Socso) conducting compulsory Covid-19 screening on foreign workers.

This time, Covid-19 has hit the community. Affected patients are no longer merely part of the statistics. More and more of those infected are people we know or close to us.

This includes family members, friends, colleagues and business contacts we sometimes interact with at meetings or meals.

Many of those who were asymptomatic never knew they were infected until their companies began carrying out mass testing, or only when they developed mild symptoms.

By then, the responsible ones would have revealed their close contact with them, so they could be whisked to testing and then quarantine themselves.

Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate. With little regard to wealth or status, no one is spared.

There are numerous stories of prominent businessmen in Kuala Lumpur who simply attended a dinner and got infected.

There are drivers and bodyguards of royalty and Tan Sris who displayed symptoms, which sent their terrified bosses scrambling for testing and mandatory self-quarantine.

The government has finally announced that those without symptoms or are mild cases, can monitor themselves at home because public hospitals and quarantine centres can no longer cope.

Self-monitoring is universally accepted and has long been practiced in Britain and the United States. It takes the burden off frontliners so that they can focus on the more serious cases, which have increased.

There has been general acceptance of the MCO, despite the expected unfavourable response from the business community.

The number of positive cases has soared, and for once, even sceptical Malaysians – who despise the federal government – no longer claim the numbers are inflated.

Through media reports, we now know of how some employers had put their foreign workers in horrible hostel conditions, and in some cases, even refused to pay for their testing and quarantine.

These incorrigible employers even insist that since they’ve been paying taxes, the government should bear the expenses of treating their staff.

These selfish employers include those who’ve raked in billions of ringgit profiting from the pandemic.

There are good bosses, too, though. Nine manufacturers in Negri Sembilan pooled their resources to book an entire hotel in the state to quarantine their staff, which includes foreigners.

They had proper food and good facilities, even though they had to lock themselves up in their rooms. Another hotel in Selangor was booked by 10 factory owners to house their workers, who include security guards and workers from various manufacturers.

The concept of employers willing to prioritise the welfare and interest of their staff is highly commendable. There’s no point having bosses talk about the importance of human capital at annual company dinners in speeches – prepared by their corporate affairs department – when they don’t mean it.

It’s during such crucial times that leadership is tested and proven. We’ve seen the chairman and chief executive officers of companies basking in the limelight when all is rosy but sneaking off and disappearing when disaster strikes.

The low-level public relations managers end up facing the media or worse, merely despatch a press release, even when lives are lost in a disaster. It’s classic poor crisis management.

Likewise, the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) fared badly in responding to the viral video of poor conditions at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park (MAEPS) in Serdang.

In fact, the rebuttal from Malaysians who stayed there and posted pictures of the food and living conditions, came out more credible than Nadma.

By then, the video and pictures with the negative postings had gone around the world. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s where we stand in effectiveness and speed in responding to such bad publicity.

It doesn’t help that many Malaysians like persecuting themselves and think the worse of the country. They forward bad news but keep silent when there’s an explanation, and unfortunately, that’s just how the dice rolls. Welcome to the world of social media.

It’s shameful when Covid-19 patients had to clean up dirty toilets at the Sabah quarantine centre.

A video was posted showing patients, who were fed up with the poor sanitary conditions of the bathrooms and toilets, cleaning the facilities themselves.

It happened at the Likas Covid-19 low-risk quarantine centre in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

Those responsible for the daily maintenance of the quarantine centres must do a much better job. It’s pathetic, and clearly, heads must roll. It’s simply unacceptable.

And the world isn’t just Malaysia. Such viral messages travel across the globe and immediately put Malaysia in bad light.

We can debate and argue over the required use of Bahasa Malaysia, but if we need to take on the world, we must use the major languages.

Even at the end of the MCO, whether it’s two weeks or a month, a Covid-19 Crisis Communications Team has to be in place to handle all questions and cases factually.

Yes, it’s important that there should only be Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and the Health Ministry director-general Tan Sri Noor Hisham Abdullah and the Covid-19 Crisis Communications Team to tackle the broader issues, but nitty gritty matters are significant, too.

When the mass vaccine exercise is rolled out, we can expect a ton of questions – and surely complaints – because it will involve millions of people.

We really should learn from other countries which have started the programme. They’ve not been spared from many fiascos, including logistical issues and vaccines gone to waste because recipients never turned up.

Let’s get our act together and involve every sector of Malaysia to end this pandemic quickly.

Play your part to fight this dreadful disease because we’re suffocating from the excessive and unproductive politicking in this country.

Turning the tide on a tiny terror


Improved measures: Covid-19 testing has become more readily available and cheaper over the last few months. — Filepic/The Star

We’ve endured a terrifying year, and if we don’t address the insidious virus still on the prowl, it could be at our peril.

THE second round of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic is set to happen. It was never a case of “if” but always “when”.

So it came as no surprise to Malaysians since most of us had already braced for the imminent fresh phase of the movement control order (MCO).

By last week, talk of the MCO was making its rounds on social media, and a Chinese language newspaper even front-paged the speculation with a big question mark.

It’s inevitable because the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 daily makes for horrific reading. Grim pictures of congested quarantine centres, especially those housing foreign workers, have also gone viral and are now burned into our brains.

Covid-19 is finally frightening many of us and jolting our senses to do something about it.

The MCO will be a costly affair because we suffered losses of RM63bil last March, with an estimated daily perishing of RM2.4bil, but saving lives takes priority over the economy now.

After all, this must surely be the last option the government has considered.

We must find new ways to battle the pandemic. With our Covid-19 hospitals and quarantine centres bursting at the seams, we have to adopt the approach of other countries grappling with massive numbers.

The focus should be on patients who need immediate treatment and attention. Those with mild symptoms or are asymptomatic should just be quarantined at home and only resort to calling for medical help if they develop severe symptoms. This has become the global practice and is in line with World Health Organisation guidelines.

They’ll just need to monitor themselves. This is the practical approach that many countries have taken.

Only patients with no possibility of quarantining or physical distancing, like a family living in a tiny flat, will be catered to.

Covid-19 testing has also become more readily available and cheaper over the last few months.

If it cost over RM300 last March and about RM250 at clinics, now, many private labs are offering the tests at RM130, with appointments made online.

Those seeking these tests only need to arrive at the appointed time, take their tests and then receive the results via email or WhatsApp the following day.

These private initiatives have helped lighten the load of public hospitals and clinics.

Obviously, we need to galvanise everyone in the fight this time. It’s not just about big corporations handing mock cheques to the Prime Minister for a photo opportunity, or posting morale boosting messages for our heroic frontliners.

Our beleaguered medical staff and security forces, especially policemen, can’t survive on praise alone.

We need a partnership involving the government, private sector and non-governmental organisations. Let’s rally the troops this time, in what’s been termed the whole- of-society approach, to include everyone in this all-out war against the coronavirus.

Given the predicted increase in patient numbers, the Health Ministry, in its recommendations, might need to review its strategy.

If we have to fast track the approval of vaccines, like Singapore did despite its lower numbers, then Malaysia would have to do the same to be more proactive.

Basically, expedite the regulatory processes so that immunisation can begin as soon as the first doses of vaccines arrive at the airports, as rightly proposed by a group of eminent doctors in a letter to the Prime Minister.

They also called for the debunking of Covid-19 and vaccine disinformation to empower the people with informed consent when the vaccines arrive, adding that besides prioritising the high-risk groups, migrant workers should get their shots, too, because they protect our industries.

The cost of vaccines will also need to be capped at less than RM100 per dose for those getting their shots privately.

While purchasing vaccines is done by the government, it should seriously consider allowing private hospitals to buy their own allocations.

Professionals, businessmen and those vital to our industries need to be protected too, because their expertise is invaluable.

If they wish to pay premium rates for the vaccine because they can afford it, then private hospitals should be allowed to have their share of allocations. At least let these private hospitals make their own arrangements.

It would also lift the load off the government, whose immediate focus should be on Malaysians who need help the most, those who shouldn’t be denied the right to the vaccines.

It won’t help if we’re too stringent, too legalistic or too regulatory in our approach.

We need to win the war against Covid-19. We simply don’t have time for politicians.

And no double-standard treatment for politicians just because they are elected representatives. If anyone takes a trip to Turkey again, let’s really roast them this time.

´╗┐The emerging light


New hope: Malaysia is set to embark on its first Covid-19 vaccine trial, involving some 3,000 participants from eight hospitals under the Health Ministry.

AS we begin 2021, most of us are invigorated by renewed hope, positivity and optimism. After all, it surely can’t be as bad as the past year, when the pandemic stunned us into submission and destroyed our way of life.

The miraculously quick availability of vaccines – although only a few countries have fast tracked its approval – means a cure has been found, so, a rebound is in sight.

The coronavirus-induced recession crushed almost all businesses, with the aviation, tourism, entertainment and hospitality sectors the hardest hit.

Many of us, like the rest of the world, lost our jobs, and working from home has become entrenched.

But as Malaysia enters the first week of 2021, and as we prepare to welcome the Year of the Ox, many of us feel bullish.

Naturally, we need to be level-headed, even if we want things to be better.

The number of Covid-19 positive cases can only increase, and Malaysia has disappointingly gone from bad to worse.

But this is partly due to massive screenings conducted on foreign workers by health authorities.

We went into lock down in March last year when our Covid cases averaged mere two digits daily. But the current numbers are a staggering all-time high well into four figures. Still, we’re free to move around, albeit with safe practices firmly in place.

The truth is we’ve simply succumbed to the economic reality. Having to balance the needs of the economy and health of the public means we can’t revisit the harsh movement control order (MCO).

Although most of us in the Klang Valley continue to live with the conditional MCO, the tough measures experienced during the MCO period no longer apply.

As local tourism resumes, it’s apparent how caution has been thrown to the wind, exhibited by congestion at ferry jetties, and in one situation, a huge crowd at a clothing apparel promotion.

The malls are packed again, and so are the restaurants and coffee shops, and that means we will only expose ourselves to the virus more.

We also need to brace ourselves for the potential shut down of non-essential businesses again if the numbers spiral out of control in the first quarter of 2021.

But real hope has arrived. There is talk that vaccines will be available by April or May, by when we hope trials with volunteers would have concluded.

We should be able to see, by then, the effects on people in countries which have taken the vaccine route.

Malaysia is set to embark on its first Covid-19 vaccine trial, involving some 3,000 participants from eight hospitals under the Health Ministry. The trial would be a Phase Three clinical trial, developed by the Institute of Medical Biology Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing.

Malaysia is reportedly working to secure Covid-19 vaccine doses for an initial target of 60%-70% of the population.

CIMB, in a report, forecasted the market will do well in the first half of 2021, due to factors such as additional liquidity available to retail investors, improved sentiment over mass vaccine programmes in Malaysia, reopening of international borders and potential fund flows back to emerging markets.

While I remain an optimist, I am also prepared for volatility and the unexpected. The economic rebound of up to 7.5% growth will depend on internal and external factors, which involve many things beyond our control.

We will also see the unveiling of the 12th Malaysia Plan, the country’s development blueprint for 2021-2025. It could well be the ruling government’s manifesto ahead of any general election. The 12th Malaysia Plan is likely to be ready in the coming months.

However, we can expect the fractious politics to continue. If the current government seems weak with its thin majority, then the Opposition is just as divided.

It doesn’t have the numbers to topple the government, and the two main figures – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim – just can’t work together.

The DAP has a problem because none of the Malay-based parties want to work with it.

Gabungan Parti Sarawak, which is vital to hold the federal government, has also said it won’t work with the DAP either.

The continuous support from the Chinese community for the DAP – which has a strong Chinese appeal – means voting itself out of the government.

This has happened in Sabah, and now Perak, where there’s no Chinese representation in both state governments.

PAS, which is clearly enjoying its lynchpin position, will continue to push its brand of Islamist politics, which has unsettled many Malaysians.

We can expect the same theatrics and incredible claims, or lies, from some of our politicians, but they won’t be helping to inspire foreign investment.

Sarawak is expected to call for its state elections by March, and that will kick off the year’s political events.

It’s good to be confident, but don’t unfasten the seat belts just yet, because the ride will still be bumpy. And keep those face masks on, too, for insurance.

Christmas Special with Erik Valle

 

Reason for the season

Somehow, the significance of Dec 25 to the Christian community continues to elude many in our beautifully plural society.

CHRISTMAS Day may be over, but we should still be talking about this special occasion since the world is still celebrating the festive season. As a matter of fact, the Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe annually celebrate Christmas Day on or around Jan 7.

There’s nothing in the Bible that states Jesus was born on Dec 25. However, the date was recorded as a day of celebration in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

The Orthodox date works on the Julian calendar, named as such because it was proposed by Roman leader Julius Caesar. It predates the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, which is what’s used in most of the world.

But date aside, Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ. It’s not about Santa Claus, a decorated tree or exchanging gifts, but instead, purely about Jesus Christ.

It’s about his redemptive heart, of forgiveness and healing, loving and giving, the fulfilment touch and that God has come. That explains the season.

Christmas has, of course, become more secular and commercialised. It has now become a year-end holiday season. An Internet search of Christmas shows the appearance of Santa Claus in greater numbers than Christ himself. For many non-Christians, there is no religious significance.

No one will have their faith compromised by wishing someone Merry Christmas or even seeing a cake with that message displayed on the gateau.

Certainly, it’s not about whether wishing a Christian “Merry Christmas” is religiously acceptable or if selling cakes with the Christmas message jeopardises halal certification status.

Malaysians shouldn’t let these silly distractions affect their celebrations and the central message of the auspicious occasion. There will always be some looney, or groups of them, looking for attention and this time, PAS, with its newfound political power, seems to have gained a much louder voice.

But PAS has been consistent with such pronouncements, although it readily bends its rules and beliefs when it suits the party’s political gains.

So let’s not get overly upset. It’s just catering to its audience, who believe anything and everything their political/religious idols tell them.

It’s no different from the hardcore Donald Trump supporters in evangelical churches in the mid-west of the United States.

But here are the facts. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew in the Bible, although the date is not revealed.

Bethlehem is in Israel, but it’s administered by Palestinian authority. It’s a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

Basically, this is a huge Muslim town. Many biblical sites are found in towns which are predominantly Palestinian.

There are, indeed, many holy sites which are significant to both Muslims and Christians. And Christmas is celebrated in a huge way by the people there, both Christians and Muslims. Muslims make up over 50% of the population in Bethlehem.

Most of the Palestinians depend on Christian pilgrims and tourists for their living because they sell Christian religious and commemorative items.

No eyebrows are raised or debates sparked if people wish each other Merry Christmas in Palestine.

And Palestinian leaders have traditionally attended services at the Church of the Nativity, the site of the manger where Jesus is said to have been born.

It’s regarded as the world’s oldest continuously operating church, and inside the church is a grotto, a cramped, candle-lit nook said to be the spot where Jesus was born.

My knowledge isn’t Google-generated but firsthand because I’ve been to Jerusalem and other biblical sites as a Christian pilgrim.

I’ve spoken with many Palestinians, including Muslims, about their way of life, their frustrations and anger against the Israeli government.

The West Bank is a tiny but heavily populated area, and the people can’t possibly have the time to channel their energy towards meaningless polemics.

Here’s another gem: a Muslim family has been protecting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many believe Jesus Christ was crucified and entombed.

The church is one of Christianity’s holiest sites, and many Christian denominations share this holy space for prayer. Thousands of people from all over the world make the pilgrimage there for the Easter holidays.

Few of these visitors are aware that the Joudeh family has held the keys to the church for generations, dating back to 1517.

The task fell to Joudeh’s ancestors as a way of maintaining a neutral guardian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, since the church is split between multiple Christian denominations, including Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Franciscans.

This agreement between Joudeh’s Muslim ancestors and the Christians has helped build and maintain cooperation among the religions.

In a nutshell, instead of annually talking about the propriety of wishes, I’m glad most of my Muslim friends and relatives have simply ignored the whining of the minority.

The King, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah, also joined in wishing Christians a Merry Christmas, together with the Rulers of Selangor and Johor, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah and Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar.

The Ruler of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, has also consistently spoken up with his well-crafted messages on various issues affecting the people.

The messages of these senior Rulers are important because they are the true custodians of Islam and heads of Muslims in this country.

It’s also reassuring to the non-Muslim communities who are increasingly feeling insecure in the face of the actions and statements of some politicians and even civil servants, who possess the clout and authority to make decisions which affect many of us.

By applying pressure on non-Muslims to refrain from organising beauty contests and the like, they make many of us wonder where moderate Malaysia is headed.

And let’s not forget about a PAS MP grudgingly apologising for his claim of a distorted Bible.

In the warped minds of these PAS politicians, every celebration must be “hedonistic”. That means engaging in sensually pleasurable experiences, and in most cases, portrayed by the proverbial party and the prerequisite booze and drugs.

They simply love this word, and who knows why. Too many Netflix movies, perhaps?

At a time when we’re struggling with shrinking incomes, a faltering economy, a weak government and a raging pandemic, it’s incredulous that some of us can still find the time and energy for frivolous issues.

In the absence of many politicians unwilling to speak up against zealots who push unreasonable political tones because of political expediency, we can only count on our Rulers to speak up for most of us.

Daulat Tuanku! Merry Christmas to all Christians and a Happy New Year to all.

Rocking the boat


Photo: CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

Financial logic is shaking the foundations of the Penang ferry’s nostalgic appeal.

IF there’s a valid reason for Penang’s iconic ferry service to be retained, then it’s merely to preserve heritage and aesthetics.

However, that means taxpayers would have to cough up millions of ringgit for nostalgia.

I wonder how many of our politicians on the island regularly patronise the ferry service when they travel to the mainland.

Barring those accessing Butterworth town from George Town, they’ll likely use the Penang bridge to reach Seberang Prai. It’s apparent that the second link to the mainland, the 24km Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, is greatly underutilised. Again, it wouldn’t be wrong to presume that these politicians don’t use it often either, if at all.

Like the Star Ferry service, which connects Hong Kong and Kowloon, the Penang ferry is more than just a tourist attraction – it also serves as a quick travel system.

But the Penang ferry service is also like an unwanted child. Everyone talks passionately about wanting to keep the baby, but no one wants to pay for childcare.

Talk is cheap, so show us the money, goes the adage.

Many Penang politicians – a bulk not even true-blue Penangites in the first place – talk about saving the service, but no one has practical plans to sustain it.

The cost won’t justify its upkeep – it’s that simple.

If the Finance Ministry announces that the ferry service is to be retained with an allocation of RM30mil, then it is certainly not a long-term solution. It is throwing away good money as this service is already in the intensive care unit.

Any plan should be feasible and long-term in nature.

There is little point in using political superlatives – like “acts of betrayal” – in an attempt to hang on to it.

The reality is that the Penang ferry service, with the same models, same look and feel, can no longer act as the continuing mode of transport. Period.

Like the Star Ferry in HK, the Penang ferry service has also been bleeding profusely. Passenger numbers have dropped drastically, so the operation has been running at a massive loss.

In HK, since the Star Ferry pier was moved from its old spot next to City Hall to its new location outside the International Finance Centre, passenger count has fallen sharply, so the service caters mainly to tourists and few commuters, reveal reports.

Likewise, the Penang ferry service has experienced the same fate. Over the last four years, the number of passengers has been dismal.

An average of two million users, including bicycles, lorries, cars, motorcycles and passengers, used the ferry between 2016 and 2019.

The number of passengers and motorcycles averages around a million a year, respectively.

That figure was halved this year, although the Covid-19 pandemic can take credit for that with travelling restricted.

But while the issue of ridership remains a major concern, the big question is the seaworthiness of the ferries in the future, since most of them are 47 years old.

The service experiences an average of one breakdown a month. That’s how bad it’s been. Just talk to the workers operating the ferries for details.

Sourcing spare parts from Europe has been a major challenge because the manufacturers no longer make these obsolete parts.

The government entity, Prasarana Malaysia Bhd, has been put in the unenviable position of running this loss-making entity, as it is said to cost them RM13.7mil annually to keep the ferries in service, yet it only collects RM7mil in tickets on average.

Prasarana has had to fork out RM24mil a year since it took over the service from Penang Port Sdn Bhd in 2018.

The previous Transport Minister, Anthony Loke, under the Pakatan Harapan government, had announced that Prasarana would be allocated RM90mil for upgrading the ferries and terminals. Of this, RM21mil would have been set aside to buy new passenger ferries, which presumably would be in a different form and shape from the present iconic ones.

A total of RM13.7mil from the allocation was to be spent on repairing the six existing ferries over a three-year period, but the funds never arrived.

I’m told that of the RM31mil operations cost a year, the ferries’ maintenance takes up to 50% of the budget, a bill which could increase as they age.

An annual loss of RM24mil is incurred in operating the ferry service. That’s a colossal sum to pay for the sake of nostalgia.

With an average monthly passenger and motorist count of 84,000 each, registered between 2016 and 2018, no business can afford such an operation.

Instead of making generalised and populist comments, politicians should also look at the financial details.

It makes sense to use catamarans and new water buses to replace the ferries, which would ensure the transport facility’s flow.

In fact, last year, Loke announced the use of catamarans to replace the existing ferry service.

Likewise, the iconic Penang Hill funicular railway, which climbs from Air Itam to Penang Hill, has been replaced with many different models because of maintenance and spare part issues.

It makes little sense to stubbornly insist on sticking to these old ferries purely for nostalgic reasons.

It’s not as if transportation between Penang island and Butterworth will be terminated.

I go back to my home state every month because I’m a born and bred Penang Island boy. The ferry service holds many fond memories for me, but if it needs to take a bow, then we must accept it. After all, logic should prevail.

Winning Global Balance with Alena Murang

 

A Borneo Christmas with Wesley Hilton