Author Archives: wcw

Another day in paradise

IT’S easy to have thought that the incessant politicking would end after last year’s general election, but instead, the deluge of bad vibes continues, much like a bad TV drama in dire need of an ending.

I don’t know about the rest of my countrymen, but I am exhausted by the relentless political witch-hunting and gaffes of our ministers, resulting from their inexperience, lack of coordination or just plain ignorance.

Then, there is the rewind of some political controversies, which have resumed recently, and it’s apparent that “rewind” has become archaic since the demise of the compact cassette and its player. Well, for those of us old enough to “rewind” and remember, perhaps we can call it the political retro.

So, we are back to dealing with spats with our neighbour and a royal household. By sheer coincidence, they are close to each other – geographically speaking, at least.

As a regular traveller, I am constantly queried about the reason Malaysian authorities take such a long time to trace individuals.

So, we still don’t know where fugitive Jho Low is, although there are murmurings that he has been spotted in China, yet he is able to issue rebuttals against the government, even if via his lawyers.

Then, there is Pastor Raymond Koh and Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat, who both went missing months apart from each other. Now, Malaysia’s human rights commission, Suhakam, believes the two were victims of state-sponsored “enforced disappearances”.

It’s a damming conclusion, or accusation, depending on perspective, but Suhakam has said the two were taken by the Special Branch – the police’s intelligence unit.

Raymond Koh, accused of proselytising to Muslims, disappeared on Feb 13, 2017, in Selangor. Amri, who practises Syiah Islam, which is banned in Sunni-majority Malaysia, disappeared on Nov 24, 2016, in Perlis. The report said that the two men’s religious activities were the cause of their disappearance.

Again, the police have been unable to find them, and neither have they been able to learn more about the people responsible for their disappearance. In the case of Koh, it was literally a daylight kidnapping. Still, no clear clues have surfaced.

And of course, we also can’t locate Pathmanathan Krishnan @ Muhammad Riduan Abdullah, the Muslim convert and former husband of Hindu mother M. Indira Gandhi, or their daughter whom he abducted nine years ago. It’s now almost a decade’s agonising wait for the family.

The police have said that efforts to track down Muhammad Riduan have been ongoing since May 20, 2014, when a warrant was issued by the High Court in Ipoh.

Jho Low, who is on the run, most likely has family members including his father, mother and sister with him, but the same can’t be said for the wives of Koh and Amri, as there is no closure for them.

Of course, there is Indira, who last saw her ex-husband and youngest child Prasana Diksa, in 2010, when the girl was 11 months old.

We don’t have to agree with the politics or religious practices of either Koh or Amri, but surely our hearts bleed for what their wives are going through as they struggle with the hope of one day seeing their husbands return, or to accept the possibility that they have become widows.

With Indira, are we going to believe that her child was taken from her and that we can’t locate her ex-husband? Amazingly, he remains missing.

Every politician we know has waxed lyrical about the justice system, so, we’d like to see them walk the talk by exercising the authority bestowed upon them. Or are they, too, telling us that they have more urgent matters on their plate?

And then we come to another point: who needs another state election when we just had a general election barely a year ago?

It’s only right that if a Mentri Besar can’t work with the Sultan or Prime Minister, a replacement must be appointed. In this case, someone who could just get on with the business of the day – running the state.

Suddenly, everyone is a legal expert in the state and federal constitutions. And we know lawyers have differing views and different ways of interpreting the law. That’s why they are in the legal business.

And we still have no idea why the former Johor MB decided to quit. He, too, went missing for awhile, and of course, could not be traced either.

So, while that episode was raging on, we had a national debate on whether the Sultan has absolute power under the state constitution to appoint an MB, or if the ruling party needs to seek the Sultan’s consent, or if the state constitution expressly provides that the Ruler “shall” appoint an MB “who in his judgement is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the state assembly”, or if the PH government has the right to their choice of MB.

However, the point is that politicians come and go, but Rulers remain. And the last thing the country, or state needs, is a constitutional crisis.

Malaysians don’t need this kind of issue brewing when the kitchen is on fire. The economy needs quick fixing, so we need the full attention, and expertise, of our national leaders.

We don’t want them to be sidetracked or the people to be distracted. They should simply carry on with the job they’ve been elected to do.

Malaysian public figures shouldn’t be spending time posting messages on social media, and neither should people be using their working hours to share these messages.

And now that Johor will get a new MB, we can get on with the work at hand.

Middle class malady

Struggling and frustrated: Most aid goes to the B40, leaving the M40 feeling adrift and on their own.

THE economy is the most talked about topic among Malaysians, with issues including the increasing cost of living, shrinking ringgit, continuing weak economy and sadly, the endless politicking.

While attention has been cast on the Bottom 40, or the group known as B40, as they make up the lowest earners, the middle class, the Middle 40, or M40, shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Malaysians are categorised into three different income groups: Top 20% (T20), Middle 40% (M40), and Bottom 40% (B40).

To be in T20, a household’s monthly income should at least be RM13,148, while the M40 and B40 groups have raised their bars to RM6,275 and RM3,000 respectively.

We don’t need a survey to know that the people in the bottom half of M40 and B40 are barely making ends meet and struggling to maintain a decent lifestyle.

At the lowest end, 70% of these poorest are the bumiputeras, while the rest are Chinese and Indians, which proves the poor comprises all races.

The M40 – which forms 40% of Malaysia’s population – includes mostly wage earners, in both public and private sectors.

The bulk of their income goes to paying the car and housing loans, rent, and groceries. After deductions from the essential bills, such as phone, Astro, petrol, and children’s education, there’s barely anything left to save.

It’s harder for those who need to take care of their ageing parents, a noble endeavour which naturally includes settling healthcare bills, and even expenses for care takers.

And since the majority of the M40 lives in the cities, the household income of RM6,275 is almost negligible, and they can hardly be faulted for feeling that their standard of income has dipped drastically while the cost of living has increased.

The M40 essentially comprises the most frustrated lot since most aid goes to the B40, leaving the former feeling adrift and on their own.

Most of them don’t have alternative revenue streams besides their monthly wages, and they are dependent on corporate performances, so the overall economy is key.

They are unlikely to care that the Department of Statistics’ Household Income and Basic Amenities survey indicated that the mean income of households in 2016 reached RM6,958, a 6.2% annual appreciation from RM6,141 in 2014.

The survey also revealed the incidences of poverty decreased from 0.6% of the population in 2014 to 0.4% in 2016. Compared with the population of 30.7 million in 2014 and 31.7 million in 2016 (from the same portal), the numbers also decreased from 184,200 to 126,800 from 2014 to 2016.

The 11th Malaysia Plan (2016 – 2020) Mid-Term Review stated that the mean household income is predicted to reach RM8,960 by 2020.

The term “middle class” has different meaning and measurement to economists and academics from those classified in the M40 category.

As one analyst rightly pointed out, a household of four living in the Klang Valley with an income of RM4,000 per month, would be classified as urban poor due to the higher cost of living. However, that income would be comfortable to live in Pasir Mas or even Taiping.

It won’t be wrong to suggest that at RM4,000, that’s only enough for a single person to live in the Klang Valley.

We need to understand that the key people driving the country’s economy are the middle-income and top earners, many of whom feel they have fallen between the cracks of progress.

At every Budget, they seem to be the forgotten Malaysians, and each year, they hope for lower level tax bands for themselves, so they can have extra disposable income, but that never happens.

Khazanah Research Institute’s (KRI) State of Households 2018 revealed a steady increase in the income gaps between the Top 20% (T20), M40 and B40 groups since the 1970s. In 2000, the estimated real mean household income differences between T20 and M40, M40 and B40, and T20 and B40, were RM6,000, RM2,000 and RM8,000 respectively.

By 2016, however, it increased to RM9,000, RM4,000 and RM13,000.

These figures show that T20 households are gaining wealth at a faster rate than the rest.

Despite the improvement in mean household income figures, the gap between income groups continues to rise, and the survey added that “the escalating cost of living has put financial pressure on the M40 and B40 groups.”

“With income growing at a slower pace compared with the cost of living, the M40 and B40 groups are experiencing an abridged disposable income, which could be detrimental to future consumption, activity, emergency or debt services.”

Combining data from the Department of Statistics’ Household Income survey (2016 and 2014) and KRI household reports (concerning population increase), it’s clear that the percentage of households living under the 60% median grew from 2014 to 2016 by 41.8% to 43.5%, with an estimated 2.8 million households in 2014 and three million households in 2016.

The increase also suggests that more M40 households have slipped into the B40 category – and this is where the alarm bells go off.

In the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020), targeted subsidies, cash handouts, healthcare benefits, education, along with employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, include the usual strategies to ease the burden of B40 households.

One of the major concerns among the young M40 family is that they can no longer afford to buy a “middle class” home, and the difficulties have been aggravated by how they need to live relatively close to their workplace.

As much as the government expects housing developers to build affordable houses, let’s not forget that most of these developers have bought land at premium prices, and as private concerns, they still need to make profits.

But homes in Malaysia have become “seriously unaffordable” by international standards, and there’s no need to point fingers at developers when the governments have basically failed to do the job, unlike Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB), which builds and upkeeps flats that don’t degenerate into urban slums.

Their HDB flats are so well-designed and maintained that they can pass off as high-end apartments by Malaysian standards.

Bank Negara reported that from 2007 to 2016, house prices grew by 9.8% while household income only increased by 8.3%. While developers blamed rising construction costs – including labour outlay – and stagnant salaries for the increase in house prices, all this means nothing to the M40, because ultimately, they still can’t buy houses.

The rent-to-own scheme which the B40 has enjoyed from the low cost houses, needs to be extended to the M40, so they, too, can enjoy the same benefits, and while such help is expected to come via PRIMA Corp, a federal government-linked developer which supposedly caters for M40, it’s still falling behind schedule.

While it could be easy for the M40 to request more support, including allowances for school-going children, and even free student passes for public transport, it’s time that financial literacy be introduced at school level.

A study by S&P Global Literacy Financial in 2014 showed that the financial literacy rate in Malaysia is only at 36%, compared with 59% in developed countries.

“The low financial literacy rate is among the factors that has contributed towards high levels of debt – including worrying bankruptcy problems – among the youth.

“Between 2013 and 2017, a total of 100,610 Malaysians were declared bankrupt, of which 60% were between 18 and 44 years old,” according to Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng.

Apart from the youth, Lim noted that older Malaysians are also facing serious financial challenges, particularly when it comes to their retirement.

Based on estimates by the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), he said that as of 2019, an individual requires savings of at least RM240,000 by age 55 to retire comfortably.

However, based on the EPF 2017 Report, active contributors aged 54, have average savings of only RM214,000 in their accounts.

“What is even more worrying is that two-thirds of contributors aged 54, only have RM50,000 and below in their EPF accounts in 2015,” he reportedly said, adding that this was well below the recommended amount for savings.

Lim noted tha the low amount of savings was inadequate and estimated it to run out within five years of retirement, although the average life-span of Malaysians is 75.

Basically, the B40, M40 and, our young and old Malaysians, are all either grappling with financial problems, don’t know how to handle their money, or don’t even earn enough in the first place.

This is unlike the situation for the T20, which has disposable income where their wealth encourages investment and wealth creation, the main principles of the T20 group.

But of all people, politicians should know the importance of the people wanting to have money in their pockets and feeling well heeled.

Easier loan payments, good refinancing packages and transport allowances should be considered to help the M40.

If the market continues to slide, there will be many unhappy people, and the resentment will translate to protest votes. For them, it simply means the government is doing a lousy job, and they couldn’t care less for the reasons, however valid they may be.

Up where it belongs

Few carriers could survive the catastrophes Malaysia Airlines endured, and yet through the trying times, it has continued to represent everything about us.

I HAVE flown a variety of airlines, everything from the heavy hitters such as Emirates, Qatar Airways, British Airways and Cathay Pacific to even Jamaican Airlines and, more recently, Air Siberia, too. And in the United States, I have travelled on budget airlines where the flight attendants treat their passengers like nuisances rather than customers.

I have had my share of poor service on those American airlines, where crew members clearly in the twilight years of their tenure literally threw food at me.

And once, a steward was trying to hit on a big guy sitting next to me, in the process of which I was completely ignored while my “neighbour” received preferential treatment.

On all those long-haul trips, especially when travelling economy class, I wished I was on a Malaysia Airlines flight.

After a long stay overseas, whether on business or vacation, nothing quite beats getting on board MAS and seeing radiant smiles and warmth from the Malaysian crew, which you know is genuine and not put on.

So it comes as no surprise that while MAS has faced several challenges over the past five years, Malaysia Airlines Bhd’s (MAB) brand health remains high among Malaysians at +40.0 out of 100. MAB still maintains a loyal customer base with YouGov Profiles data reporting that its current clientele most likely comprises married men aged 30 to 44, who work full time and earn more than RM10,000 a month.

Over the past few weeks, MAB has come under the spotlight following news reports that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad touched on the prospect of MAB being sold off, shut down or refinanced. Finance minister Lim Guan Eng has since clarified that the airline will not be shut down.

And the e-mails The Star has been receiving from Malaysians has one common theme – they want MAB to be properly handled since it’s the national carrier they love and are proud of.

Indeed, at the recent MATTA fair in Kuala Lumpur which I attended, the MAB booth was packed, and Malaysians had no qualms snapping up the attractively-priced air tickets.

Other nationalities, as per the findings on YouGov Profiles, view MAB differently, though. While Indonesians still perceive the brand positively (+4.2), Singaporeans take a more negative view, with the carrier’s Index score currently at -13.7.

My Singaporean relatives usually insist on flying other airlines that land at KLIA, but I have steadfastly insisted they take Firefly instead because Subang airport is just 15 minutes from my home.

But they can barely fathom flying on a turboprop plane.

MAB’s losses have made the news rounds lately, but while solutions exist, no one should expect a quick fix. Let’s be realistic.

No other airline in the world has experienced what MAB has – the greatest aviation mystery of MH370’s disappearance on March 8, 2014, while flying from KL to Beijing and the shooting down of MH17 on July 17, 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board – two catastrophic incidents mere months apart.

And then there’s “administrative” influence, like flying to Harare and Buenos Aires, the capitals of Zimbabwe and Argentina respectively, which other private airline CEOs would have dismissed.

These routes were selected for political rather than commercial reasons, because of our involvement with the Group of 15, which Dr Mahathir actively promoted 20 years ago during his first stint as prime minister. Unsurprisingly, they were poor business decisions, and now, even the G15 is defunct.

MAS, under Tan Sri Tajuddin Ramli, who was its executive chairman from 1994 to 2001, saw losses mounting. The national carrier reportedly sold its shares back to the government at RM8 per share when it was then trading at RM3.

That was before AirAsia Bhd and Malindo airlines came into the picture, and eventually, the skies got crowded and the problems facing MAB got more complicated as competition heated up.

No aviation expertise is required to realise that overcapacity in the market and declining yields will not only continue to challenge the new MAB management but AirAsia, too.

There is a need to bring logical pricing to the market, and that can be done through rightsizing capacity via regulation by the authorities, so that MAB and AirAsia will benefit as the nation’s airlines.

In China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, their governments step in to “regulate” capacity and network, so local airlines don’t kill each other domestically, but instead help promote and project the country’s name internationally.

At the rate we are going, the four airlines – MAB, AirAsia, AirAsia X and Malindo – will run each other into the ground, competing in a small market of 32 million people.

No stats indicating the number of Malaysians flying other airlines is available, but 13 million passengers flew on MAS last year.

It’s strange, but Malaysia doesn’t have a national aviation policy in place and the different rules only complicate matters for the airlines, giving the perception that the government isn’t standardising things for the different players.

The policy should also be forward thinking to attract more foreign carriers to enter the country, and the airport must be structured in a way that makes it convenient for passengers, including One World Alliance carriers needing to be housed in the same terminal and cross sharing of check in, boarding gates, and etc, to enhance efficiency and bring cost down.

Now, let’s get to the issue at hand. Is MAB worth saving? I would say “yes” because Malaysia Airlines is an important instrument of policy and an aviator widely recognised as a key contributor to economic and social development. It’s a strategic asset that shouldn’t simply be cast aside. Instead, we should ensure we do our best to fix it and make it fit for future generations.

Unlike Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific, MAB, through its MASwings, has helped promote national integration over the past 20 years and connects Malaysia with Malaysians, including in rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak. That is a vital link.

Then there’s the question of how much the management has achieved since the launch of its five-year Malaysia Airlines Recovery Plan (MRP).

Brendan Sobie, an analyst from Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa), said the MRP was too ambitious but added that it needed more time.

He revealed that it was always going to be difficult, but market conditions worsened over the four years following the launch of the MRP. He also acknowledged that Malaysia Airlines has made significant headway but needed time and more realistic financial goals.

Let’s look at the details – when MRP was carried out, fuel was at US$75.68 (RM309) a barrel and the US dollar was at RM3.91. Subsequently, fuel and the dollar became increasingly volatile, hitting US$84.8 (RM346) a barrel and RM4.30 respectively at their highest over the past four years.

Fuel prices and forex instabilities have also affected the performance of AirAsia and other airlines around the world, but in the case of MAB, it has unfortunately aggravated its losses.

The airline market has always been stiff, but competition has intensified over the years, resulting in supply outstripping demand. There are 1.75 times more seats per customer.

MAB, for example, has had to compete against airlines including Qatar Airways and Emirates, which are perceived to offer better ticket prices.

Qatar Airways reported a US$69mil (RM281mil) loss last year for a second consecutive year, which it blamed on higher operating cost, while in November 2018, Emirates, which is the largest airline in the United Arab Emirates today, posted a sharp 86% drop in half-year profits. The carrier recorded a profit of just US$62mil (RM253mil) in the first half of the 2018-2019 fiscal year compared with US$452mil (RM1.8bil) in the same period the previous year.

Last August, Etihad posted a US$1.5bil (RM6bil) annual loss in June, and said last month, that it expects to cut staff after announcing a series of leadership changes.

But the worse has yet to be seen in our region. Asia Pacific accounts for 40% of new aircraft deliveries, which translates to more than 17,000 new aircraft expected in this region over the next 20 years.

MAB CEO Captain Izham Ismail is in an unenviable position. He has inherited a host of legacy problems and has little time to mend things.

But give credit where it’s due – since he took the job, he has made some tweaks to the airline’s structure to enable more focused management across the board.

The most significant is the establishment of a new division looking into customer experience, while various departments have been grouped together to ensure all aspects of customer touch points are managed under a single division.

Despite all the bad press, Malaysia Airlines has seen great qualitative improvements, including the complete overhaul of its IT systems.

A recent Frost & Sullivan research report (Global Airline Digital Transformation, October 2018) puts Malaysia Airlines among the top 20 airlines in the world for digital readiness. Issues such as on-time-performance (OTP) and mishandled baggage also improved, with OTP now hovering around the 85% mark, which is significantly better than a year before.

Steady and consistent growth has been registered with the introduction of new routes to Brisbane, Kochi, Surabaya, Chongqing, Haikou, Nanjing, and greater frequencies to Melbourne, Osaka, Sri Lanka, Bali and Bangkok has restored faith.

CEOs have come and gone at MAB. It’s not about them being foreigners or Malaysians but needing the backing of the government for their plans to work, all of which has its due course.

Politicians and the management also shouldn’t allow themselves to be held at ransom, especially come election time. Leave the operations of the airline to the professionals.

There used to be eight unions, but following the MRP, they no longer exist and that has certainly made things easier for the management.

Malaysia Airlines isn’t just another carrier. It’s our national pride and we need to nurse it back to health. And healing surely takes time.

When the going gets tough…

Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin. -filepic

FINALLY, some sense prevails from a top Umno leader, Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin, following the amplified rhetoric of race and religion lately, which in some instances, included the dismissive tone of several party leaders towards the non-Malays.

The Umno vice-president assured Malaysians that the party was committed to a spirit of moderation, expressing gratitude to MCA and MIC for their roles in the Barisan Nasional coalition.

While much criticism has been hurled at Umno for their cooperation with PAS, he said the two parties had agreed to continue walking on the road of moderate politics with Umno. The former Johor mentri besar vowed that Umno would keep protecting the interests of Malaysia’s multi-racial makeup.

“To the non-Malay community, this is our promise. Despite any past weaknesses and shortcomings, we will continue to hold on to the spirit of moderation in our political dealings. We will never turn our backs on the non-Malay community because our decades-long political journey is full of great stories of a plural society that ought to be imitated the world over.”

The reconciliatory approach was a far cry from that of Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz’s, who is apparently no longer the coalition’s secretary-general, and rightly so, given his combative approach, even when dealing with the partners, which can only damage Barisan’s cause.

Nazri slammed MCA and MIC, saying they were free to leave Barisan if both parties no longer shared a common goal with them, and that such a move wouldn’t be a loss to the coalition.

“They are free to find new alliances and move on with other parties that have left Barisan after the 14th General Election. I do not think it is a loss,” he had said.

Nazri said this after MCA and MIC decided that they were left with no choice but to move on from Barisan and explore a new alliance which reflects the true identity of unity in diversity.

In their statement, they also described Nazri’s appointment as Barisan’s secretary-general as illegal and unrecognised by MCA or MIC. Nazri’s loose cannon style may fire him into the headlines, and he may even earn brownie points from Umno members but it’s a shabby showing, really.

Malaysians booted the Barisan out because of several key reasons – massive corruption, the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, and let’s not forget, the arrogance of some Umno leaders.

A year later – just two months shy of Pakatan Harapan’s first year in office – and Malaysians are grumbling again, and loudly too.

Many Malay-Muslims are upset at the actions and approaches of DAP leaders in federal and state governments. Unfortunately, as unhealthy and fictional as it may seem, survey findings indicate that many Malays-Muslims believe the DAP is calling the shots at the federal government level.

The survey by IIham Centre, said to be run by people close to Amanah, and the Penang state government-funded Penang Institute, revealed that nearly 60% of Malays weren’t happy with the performance of the Pakatan Harapan government.

The survey found that 60% of the respondents believe non-Muslims are now in control of the government and that the DAP is making key decisions. The survey encompassed interviews with 2,614 Malay respondents, from between Oct 24 and Dec 24 last year.

The point here is that politics isn’t about what it is, but what it appears to be, and the truth is rarely close behind.

“Politics is always about perception. It’s the one thing that gets people elected and governments defeated. There is no more powerful agent of change,” wrote political writer Tom Clarke.

These ground sentiments – among the predominantly Malay voters – of frustrations over the rising cost of living, and the inexplicable and silly statements of some PH ministers, have placed the PH government in a different light. And now, the balance is slowly shifting.

If the Malays think the DAP is calling the shots, the Chinese, on the other hand, are angry that the economy is heading nowhere. Case in point: the Inland Revenue Department is looking for crumbs from the bulk of individual Chinese taxpayers, who have rightfully questioned the return of mega projects, which seem to be considered based on political and not economic reasons.

We are told that Malaysia has no money, and yet, we are announcing decisions in which feasibility is doubtful. There seems to be a lack of direction – and even urgency – and again, perception is everything, though I could be wrong.

The urbanites can laugh at Najib’s “Malu Apa” and “Bossku” sales pitches, but he is getting traction, and is literally mobbed at places he visits. And this isn’t some social media stunt, which his cynics would like to believe.

His audience includes the disenfranchised young Malays who feel they are heading nowhere, and the middle-class Malays who have found themselves slipping towards becoming the urban poor.

Having large families with a sole breadwinner living in the city is a danger sign for the government, if they choose not to assist this group. This is a political time bomb waiting to go off.

Against this backdrop, it will be foolish for the Barisan to “close shop” because politics has become very fluid now. The dynamics are getting harder to read and predict, and it will be more so when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad retires.

Umno-PAS feel they can mount a strong challenge to PH. Their combined votes and edge on bringing the Malays to Barisan or PAS could be game the changer. But Umno-PAS have also realised that talk of Malay-Muslim unity hasn’t gone down well, and in a progressive nation, this is not healthy for plural Malaysia.

The politicians from the two parties are merely engaging in “double talk” now as a face-saving endeavour and are trying to tamper growing fears.

If Barisan were to pack it in, it would be difficult for Umno, MCA and MIC to ever register themselves as a coalition. A new alliance will never get registered and be approved by PH. So, for branding purposes, it’s smarter to keep the dacing (weighing scale) logo – which is instantly recognisable.

It will be dicey and strategically unwise for MCA or MIC, or other component parties, to contest using the Umno logo. The truth is, PAS and Umno will forge a pact, but it makes sense for opposition parties to combine their strengths to generate an effective challenge against the ruling party. There is no need for a formal Umno-PAS coalition at the expense of the Barisan. And why just Muslim unity, and not Malaysian unity?

If the MCA and MIC were to leave Barisan, and leave things entirely to just Umno and PAS, it would create an unhealthy situation of a Malay-Muslim majority opposition pitted against a more diverse ruling coalition.

As much as MCA and MIC have lost its support from non-Malays, both parties need to remain in Barisan, strengthen multi-racial cooperation, promote diversity, work harder to regain support and create a more moderate political environment.

The MCA may only have one MP, but Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong has provided constructive criticism without using the thunder and lightning approach, an old school opposition method. And to be fair, Najib has posed basic questions to the government, and that’s what Malaysians want of opposition politicians. Fight on facts and figures, and issues.

Our founding fathers understood the importance of power sharing and the politics of consensus, and they understood that for Malaysia to move forward, all races must remain united and assured they have a place in our beloved country.

At a time when many nations with dominant ethnic groups have started to embrace diversity, and allowed their countries to become more plural, Malaysia must not be seen to regress, but to, instead, strengthen our multi-ethnicity and build on it as an asset.

Malaysia needs a two-party system of multi-racial coalitions, which fights for issues affecting the people, and there’s certainly no room for the divisive politics of race and religion anywhere in there.

Marrying when it’s convenient

IT was a marriage doomed from the start. Of course, the flirting was exciting and both sides enjoyed this phase of the courting. Then, they discussed marriage.

In fact, Umno and PAS announced two weeks ago that they had formalised political ties and proudly proclaimed that they were now “married” after a three-hour meeting between leaders of both parties.

“We ‘exchanged rings’ in Sungai Kandis, ‘engaged’ in Seri Setia. Then, we decided to get ‘married’ – this is the official ceremony. And now, we are sitting on the dais,” Umno acting president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan proudly declared.

The Sungai Kandis by-election in August last year put in motion the alliance between the two parties after the 14th General Election. PAS made way for Umno to contest, although the Umno candidate lost to Pakatan Harapan.

“We are married,” a beaming Mohamad said after meeting PAS leaders led by their deputy president Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man.

But the wedding of the year, between Umno and PAS, has become a non-event. Invitation cards don’t need to be sent out.

On Monday, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang said such a union would be incestuous, likening both parties as siblings.

Correction: PAS was married to Barisan Nasional for five years from 1974 and with Barisan Alternatif (which included PKR and DAP) from 1999 till 2004. PAS is a serial divorcee with a bad record of staying in a marriage.

To put it crudely, PAS slept with practically everyone including those it had branded “kafir” (infidels) and this even included Umno at one point. But now, Hadi apparently has amnesia, and is proclaiming Umno a brother. His argument is that a marriage (with Umno) will be incestuous, though flirting is permitted.

This rationale is no different from DAP’s, which used to justify the use of hudud, saying the amputation of hands shouldn’t be a concern for non-Muslims since only “the corrupt in Barisan” need to worry. Want proof? Just watch the related videos on YouTube.

DAP even organised study trips to Kelantan to show what an exemplary state it is, although most of us feel that Kelantan is hardly a shining example of how a state should be run. PAS information chief Nasrud­din Hassan Tantawi, the firebrand who advocates the ban of Valentine’s Day and concerts, thinks it’s the best place to live and retire in Malaysia.

In fact, Hadi even praised DAP then, saying the latter stood by the Islamist party when the Kelantan government crumbled in 1978. DAP, he noted, defended PAS when the Kelantan government fell to Barisan, “which caused chaos within the state.” He reportedly said Barisan, which was working with PAS then, did nothing to help them but “only DAP defended us at the time, and we are grateful to them”.

There are several reasons why PAS has suddenly decided to take a few steps back. The excitement of seeing the possibility of regaining many crucial seats – including states lost in the last general election – if they worked together was simply overwhelming.

Calling for Muslim unity, they seem prepared to ignore the rest of Malaysians – the non-Muslims who have abandoned them anyway.

Adding to the delusion, they forget that Sabahans and Sarawakians are not supporters of the politics of race or religion. In fact, they despise political personalities of this sort.

While Malaysians may have expressed disappointment in, among other things, the performances of some PH ministers and mentris besar, the inability to fulfil many of the election promises and the rising cost of living, any retrogressive steps, such as abandoning a multi-racial government, seems alarming, to say the least.

Let’s look at the Rantau state by-election where Mohamad Has­san is contesting – the electorate has a high Chinese and Indian presence although it has a 54% Malay electorate. The Chinese make up 19% and Indians 27%, with the other races making up the remainder.

Surely Mohamad can’t be entering the campaign shouting the Malay-Muslim rhetoric and ignoring the Chinese and Indians, the people who voted for him loyally in the past. And ironically, he is contesting against an Indian candidate from PH. All this talk of Umno-PAS must be shelved, at least, for now, until they get excited again with the seemingly amorous affair.

But PAS’ biggest problem is Hadi’s inconsistency, and this has led to rational and moderate Malaysians questioning his integrity and principles, or the lack of it. What’s disturbing is, he keeps using religion to justify his ever-changing stand for the sake of political expediency.

Only 30 years ago, he issued the proclamation known widely as Amanat Haji Hadi (the dictum of Haji Hadi), where he labelled Muslims who supported Umno and Barisan as kafir or infidels, and it disastrously led to Umno and PAS members attending prayers in different mosques. He criticised the Federal Constitu­tion and the country’s laws as uncivilised legislation created by colonists and infidels, and declared that one did not have to be a Jew, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu to be deemed an infidel; anyone who believed in the separation of politics and Islam was to be labelled an infidel.

In January, Hadi reportedly delivered a warning to Muslims to place their trust in Muslim leaders, regardless of their wickedness, claiming that non-believers would end up in hell if led by non-Muslims. The PAS president reportedly wrote a lengthy article recently stressing the importance of religion in keeping the law and the need for Islam to reign supreme in governing the country.

“If the one leading is a Muslim, even if he were to be cruel, at least (others) can become cattle herders,” the Marang MP wrote.

“But if the one who leads is a non-Muslim even if he were to be the kindest, (others) can work however they wish (but) without any limits of what is ‘halal’ and ‘haram’, they will still end up in hell.”

The impression given – and he seems to want to provide that perception – is that Muslims are in danger of losing control of the federal government, or that non-Muslims are heavily dictating the running of the present government.

And yet on Monday, he said although the federal government was led by PH, the Malay Muslims still hold the biggest political power, as they hold 130 of the 222 parliamentary seats, and “if you add up all the seats won by the Malay Muslims in Parliament, be it from Harapan, or the opposition, Islam is still the majority”.

We can safely say that non-Malays and non-Muslims recognise and accept that the leadership of Malaysia needs to be of Muslim-Malay stock, and no one in his right mind should question the status quo. But no political party should stoke the fires of racial and religious controversy, or worse, create fictional bogeymen at the expense of national unity, which is far more supreme than parochial political ambition.

Keeping the ties that bind

IT was clear from the beginning that Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong were mere pawns in the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

However, what isn’t clear is why the charges against Siti Aisyah were dropped but not those against her co-accused Doan.

No one is disputing that it’s the sole prerogative of the Attorney-General to institute or discontinue prosecution of any charge.

Article 145 (3) of the Federal Constitution clearly stipulates that the AG shall have power, exercisable at his discretion, to institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for an offence, other than proceedings before a syariah court, a native court or a court martial.

But with all due respect, Malaysians expect the AG to give his reasons in the administration of justice as part of upholding the principle of transparency and accountability – which the current leaders of Pakatan Harapan, who now hold Cabinet positions, had been shouting about.

It’s a complete let down that none of them have offered their opinion or stand on the issue. They have become elegantly silent, to borrow a phrase.

It’s unprecedented for the AG to exercise this discretion at such a late stage, after the judge earlier ruled that there was a prima facie case against the two accused and had asked the defence to answer the charges.

Witnesses described how, in the Feb 13, 2017, incident, the victim died in agony shortly after being attacked. The CCTV footage screened in court during the trial showed the suspects rushing to separate bathrooms in the airport after the attack, before leaving in taxis.

Prosecutors even likened the murder to the plot of a James Bond movie, and that CCTV footage even went viral.

Doan reportedly told the police that she was instructed by four men, who were travelling with them, to spray Kim with an “unidentified liquid” while Siti Aisyah held and covered his face with a handkerchief as part of a prank for a TV show.

It was clear that the two women accused of smearing the toxic VX nerve agent were mere pawns while the four North Korean culprits disappeared after the job was executed at KLIA2.

The AG’s decision to drop the case against Siti Aishah has attracted the attention of the international media.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that Indonesia’s government had claimed its continued high-level lobbying resulted in Siti Aisyah’s release.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that she was “deceived and did not realise at all that she was being manipulated by North Korean intelligence”.

The news report said that over the past two years, Siti Aisyah’s plight was raised in “every bilateral Indonesia-Malaysia meeting, including at the president’s and vice president’s levels and in regular meetings of the foreign minister and other ministers with their Malaysian counterparts”.

The March 13 article further quoted analysts saying that Siti Aisyah’s release was in part due to politics and the improved relations between Indonesia and Malaysia since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad returned to the Malaysian premiership last year after the stunning election defeat of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

“One relationship that suffered under Najib was the Malaysia-Indonesia one. Dr Mahathir knows how important good ties are and in this more open era, supporting democratic allies is essential,” academician Bridget Welsh said.

The report said Indonesia assisted Malaysian federal government officials, wanted on corruption charges, to seek refuge there last year.

A luxury yacht at the centre of a Malaysian corruption scandal, was also seized off Bali island, in cooperation with US FBI, and returned to Malaysia last year.

It is understood that Indonesian Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly had persistently pursued the appeal for the accused’s release with the Malaysian AG.

The timing of her release is also thought to help boost the standing of incumbent Indonesian President Jokowi (Joko Widodo) in the elections.

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs, reportedly said:

“While Siti Aisyah’s release was partly political, the case against her was also seen as weaker as her lawyers have told the court there was no video evidence showing her accosting Kim at the airport.”

We don’t know the accuracy of the report or whether this is just a figment of the reporter’s imagination, but because it is, presumably, widely read, it will give the impression that there was some kind of top-level deal in place, rightly or wrongly. An intervention beckons.

The perception didn’t help because the AG’s Chambers hasn’t dropped the charge against Doan.

So it wasn’t a surprise when Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh asked Malaysia to free Doan.

“(He) asked Malaysia to ensure a fair trial, and to set Doan Thi Huong free,” Voice of Vietnam radio reported Tuesday after Minh’s call with Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah.

It goes without saying that the matter will no longer just be a legal issue but could potentially even lead to a diplomatic spat.

Vietnam can now say that the AG has favoured one party, bearing in mind that this court had found a prima facie case against both accused. So why has Indonesia been given preferential treatment, since both women have stated, through their counsels, that they were filming video pranks?

Both also maintained they were made scapegoats by North Korea.

It is crucial that we handle this fairly since Vietnam is also an Asean member, so we must be seen to treasure our relationship with them. The international community will also be watching to see how we deal with this delicate issue.

So far, no one has had the courage to come forward to explain why the charge was dropped against only one accused. The AG has the power to decide, but the decision to withdraw must be done judiciously.

Surely Malaysians, and for that matter, the world, must not get the impression that the AG acted on Indonesia’s request, and that foreign requests should only be considered when an accused is found guilty.

But given that Siti Aisyah has been freed, perhaps the AG should now consider doing the same for Doan?

We trust that AG Tommy Thomas is a man who believes that justice must be treated with mercy, compassion and fairness, and that he will act accordingly.

Chasing waterfalls in Lusong Laku, Sarawak

It isn’t exactly crystal-clear waters, and certainly, it’s almost unheard of, but the waterfall at Lusong Laku, Belaga in Sarawak must surely rank as the most magnificent and majestic cascade in Malaysia.

The area deserves to be known as the Lost World of Sarawak because it’s virtually cut off from all forms of civilisation and remains one of the most remote parts of the state.

It took us nearly two hours to drive 142km from Bintulu, the coastal town in central Borneo, to Kampung Asap, a Penan resettlement.

From there, we hopped onto a four-wheel drive for a gruelling and treacherous six-hour journey that took us through logging tracks deep in the interior.

At a rustic coffee shop in Sungai Asap, we were cautioned about it being the last toilet stop because from there, we would have to answer nature’s call in the bushes.

We were also advised to make our last phone calls because we were going to go off the grid.

We’d be without GPS and would enter unfamiliar territory that was bumpy, dusty and dangerous. Also, we’d need to be on alert to avoid the beastly timber trucks that may come charging at us. Of course, instincts told us to pray it wouldn’t rain either, and that our vehicle wouldn’t break down during the roller coaster ride.

The plan was to reach Lusong Laku by sundown at 7pm, as darkness could potentially make the 270km trip more difficult, and of course, dangerous.

As we entered the jungle paths, we drove through timber camps and some farm huts, but there was little else.

Oh oh …. this is a rough patch! Going deep inside the Sarawak interior.

For an environmentally conscious urbanite like me, it was deeply upsetting to see the wanton logging still proliferating, and the trucks carting the logs passing by us was heartbreaking.

I couldn’t help but feel angry and sad at the destruction of the jungle and the ugly scars left behind by land clearing. Likewise, the displacement of the natives who made the jungles their homes, and the animals that live with them.

There wasn’t much to say. We kept silent, mostly, as we mourned the travesty before our eyes. It was hard to enjoy the panoramic view from above the tree tops of the rapidly depleting tropical forest.

The lush greenery of the jungle is at risk of excessive logging. Photo: FLORENCE TEH

Ironically, it’s these timber companies who have carved out the tracks which now make Lusong Laku and Sungai Asap more accessible to the people, where they can buy sundries and stock up on essentials.

However, the tracks were mostly badly maintained, and, on some stretches, planks were hastily put together as makeshift bridges for us to drive on.

And at times, we found ourselves precariously close to steep edges of ravines. Morbid thoughts kept playing in my mind of how we’d survive should our tyres slip and send us hurtling down. How long would it take for help to arrive? I shuddered to think.

The journey had taken longer than we expected because, much to our dismay, it rained. And the closer we got, the tougher the terrain became.

The timber tracks disappeared after a while, and the final 30km took us over two hours to navigate. In the darkness, the journey felt endless, and when we finally reached the village, it was almost 9pm.

Every villager seemed to be asleep, their homes pitch black, and a miscommunication almost left us having to sleep in the car – because the owner of a homestay wasn’t informed of our arrival.

Homestay in Lusong Laku.

But our host, Bulan Kulleh, sportingly cleaned up the house and then prepared dinner for us, which comprised wild boar soup, spicy ikan bilis and wild vegetables.

The majestic Lusong Laku waterfalls (called Wong Pejik in the Punan language, meaning waterfall) was just next to her home, and we could hear the roar of the cascading water.

The Punan are an ethnic group found in Sarawak and Kalimantan, Indonesia, but they are like the semi-nomadic Penan, who make up most of the people in Lusong Laku. The village itself is a resettlement area for these natives who had to leave their jungle homes to make way for the Bakun Dam construction.

Aerial view of the Lusong Laku waterfall and Sekolah Kebangsan Lusong Laku in Belaga.

Raging river of splendour, the Lusong Laku waterfall. Photo: FLORENCE TEH

Although I was exhausted, I woke up at 3am and couldn’t contain my excitement for dawn to break, so I could hurry out to see the incredible Lusong Laku.

I was prepared for the murky water because I knew the logging upstream had wreaked havoc on the environment, but the waterfall at the upper end of Sungai Linau was a sight to behold.

It’s simply breathtaking and spectacular and is likely the most incredible waterfall in Malaysia. It has been rightly named the “Niagara Falls of Malaysia”.

The fast-flowing water, which churned and rumbled as it thundered down the rapids, left me dazzled. I was drawn to make my way down the steep river bank to get better pictures.

Bulan, a Lahanan woman from Sungai Asap, advised me to be careful since a few people had been fatally swept away by the flowing currents.

With Cikgu Nazmie and Bullan at their house in Lusong Laku.

The writer was excited to finally see one of the greatest waterfalls in Malaysia, Lusong Laku.

Lahanans, the oldest inhabitants of Borneo belonging to the so-called Kajang group, are one of the smallest ethnic communities in Sarawak. But many regard themselves Kayans because of their proximity and marriage with the Kayans.

Excited, I was prepared to be a little reckless, and successfully made a slow descent onto the river bank.

My driver, Luhat Ajang, nervously kept his footing on the sandy shore to help me record a video, with the waterfall raging behind me while my colleague, Glenn Guan, was busily flying his drone to get the best aerial shots of the river.

Within walking distance from the waterfall is the Penan resettlement village, with its two rows of longhouses for 133 families.

With the Penan children at their longhouse.

The Penans have been described as the last aboriginal nomadic people in Sarawak who sustain their livelihood by gathering food from the forest, as well as hunting.

Displaced by the construction of Bakun and Murum hydro-electric dams, they have been resettled at Sungai Asap and Lusong Laku.

It has been reported that self-sufficiency in food production is a major problem for the Penans. To assist them, iM Sarawak came up with the Wet Padi Project to train the Penans in modern farming, which was implemented in 2015.

Going about their daily activities at the Penan longhouse.

Besides the Wet Padi Project, iM Sarawak also launched a food aid programme to cover their basic sustenance ahead of harvesting.

While Lusong Laku was once an important trading post before the war, the area has lost its shine, and very little information on the place is available. However, it is slowly getting known, thanks to the waterfall.

Saying goodbye to the kind folks of Belaga, Sarawak.

There is little chance of this incredible sight becoming a major tourist spot unless there are accessible routes and good commercial accommodation. This would also provide jobs to the people there. Its tourist potential will likely have authorities trying to rehabilitate the river and put an end to logging.

I also learned there was an inactive volcano crater around, but it is now covered by the jungle and no longer visible. There is certainly a need for more in-depth information on this stunning and picturesque spot, and for Sarawak to share its charms with Malaysia and the rest of world.

Riding the winds of change

IT’S unfortunate that politics in Malaysia is going to get more toxic with the formal pact between Umno and PAS, as we can expect the two parties to take the race and religion agenda to its limit.

The two sides may not have the best credentials. Umno is still struggling to face the aftermath of the barrage of corruption and money laundering charges that have been filed against its top leaders since its defeat in the general election.

Its claim of fighting for the Malays and religion seems hollow in the wake of the glaring looting of the country’s coffers and even institutions meant to protect the interests of the Malays.

Then, there is PAS, which has found itself in an awkward situation following the expose that its leaders have a weakness for luxury cars and super bikes. Suddenly, the pious image that they have branded themselves with all along isn’t so convincing any longer.

Both Umno and PAS share something similar – their leaders have been kept busy at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission office.

Many rational Malaysians have dismissed the marriage of these two parties who have planned their pact in the name of upholding race and religion.

But the reality is that enough voters will buy into their poisonous ideology. They feel they need to support Umno and PAS because “the new government is controlled by DAP – which is a euphemism for the Chinese – and that they need to protect Malay interests and Islam.”

It doesn’t help that the tone and even body language of DAP leaders, when they deliver their speeches, are unlikely to endear them to the Malays.

A few of the DAP ministers still lack the social skills and sensitivities in creating a warm working relationship with the mostly Malay officials at their ministries.

The synergy of Umno and PAS is expected because it is a known fact that only 25-30% of Malays voted for Pakatan Harapan in last year’s general election, but that was enough to move the goal posts of political equation.

On the other hand, about 95% of Chinese voters chose PH in the May 9 elections, more than the 85% who supported the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat coalition in 2013, according to the Merdeka Center. About 70-75% of Indians voted for PH.

It said 35-40% of Malays voted for Barisan Nasional, while 30-33% placed their faith in PAS.

The report said although a higher percentage of Malays voted for PH in Johor and in west coast states such as Melaka and Negeri Sembilan, PH’s overall Malay support was affected by its weak performance in Kelantan and Terengganu.

Both Umno and PAS leaders would have realised that if they work together, they will be a formidable force as the combination of their votes were more than that for PH.

We can ridicule PAS leaders for being pseudo politicians masquerading as religious teachers, but to their rural supporters in the east coast, they are highly revered, and their constant call to set up an Islamic State in Malaysia stirs the hearts of their audience.

They are unlikely to be swayed by the news of their Porsche driving leaders, as they would probably be seen riding on their bicycles in the villages.

And their base remains solid with their loyal followers, which some of us would dismiss as fanatical.

PKR has long realised that without the participation of PAS supporters, they would never be able to get the huge numbers for their protests.

Last year’s anti-Icerd (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) rally was a success because PAS was responsible for mobilising the mammoth crowd that turned up.

But over the last nine months, Umno – especially Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak – has been able to reach out to the working-class Malays, which has been described as a disenfranchised group struggling to pay their bills.

These are not the Malays who spend the afternoons sipping tea at Bangsar Shopping Centre, but the Malays who shop and eat in Kajang and Bangi, like how the voters of Semenyih do.

But we also need to examine closely the voting patterns of Semenyih.

While most analysts have described the defeat of PH in this predominantly Malay state constituency as a “mini Malay tsunami”, we should also be mindful of Umno, Alliance and Barisan Nasional having won the seat 13 times consecutively since 1957. The only exception was in GE14, when the PH candidate won with a 8,964 vote majority. So, the Barisan victory must be seen from the right perspective.

Still, we must not overlook that there has been an increasing sense of frustration and let-down, that PH has failed to deliver what was promised. PH leaders themselves – including Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – have admitted that they over-promised because they didn’t expect to win.

The PH government has five years to fulfil its manifesto, and it’s already coming to a year now. Previously, most voters didn’t bother to read the manifesto, but times have changed. The voters and opposition hold the government to it. The onus is now on PH to share with voters its realised promises, it’s future targets, and if failure were to prevail in the short and medium term, the reasons for it.

Now that they are coming close to a year in office, they can’t continue blaming Najib or Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, Jho Low and everybody else for their inability to deliver. The legacy issue has become tiresome and their performances will be affected if voters keep hearing the same excuses, because PH was voted in to fix the problems.

There is a commonly used phrase in political science – “revolution of rising expectations.”

It refers to a situation in which a rise in prosperity and freedom leads people to believe they can improve life for themselves and their families.

The people seek to make political changes – as in GE14 – to allow them to pursue better opportunities. In our case, the people disposed Barisan after it was in power for 60 years, and Malaysians hope for a sliver of prosperity and freedom.

While there were reforms in some institutions, they expected better from PH, and obviously, they feel their expectations have been dashed. From the increasing cost of living to the weakening ringgit to poor performances of some ministers, the PH government must have heard all the grumblings, and it doesn’t help that there are enough Malays who feel that the DAP and other non-Malay officials are calling the shots.

And of course, there’s the factionalism and open squabbling in the recent PKR party polls.

It may hard to fathom, but there are Malays who buy this line because Bossku says so!

If we were to accept the survey findings that only 25-30% of Malays voted for PH, then we could safely presume that the Malay-based PH components are in serious trouble.

It wouldn’t be wrong to assume the percentage of support for PH has dipped since May last year.

Even Dr Mahathir can’t be counted upon to deliver the votes now in the fight for the hearts and minds of the Malays.

Barisan reportedly secured the majority of the 854 police personnel who voted in Semenyih.

But non-Malays have every reason, from now, to worry about the fight for the Malay votes between Barisan and PH.

There are concerns that both sides will try to outdo each other in being more Malay and Islam than the other, and such fears are not unfounded, as at some point, the non-Malays will become the bogeymen when politicians create fictional trepidation.

PH needs to focus on fulfilling the promises in its manifesto, work on the economy and issues affecting the people directly. However, a flying car isn’t one of them.

The persistent pipe dream

PATHETIC and disgusting. That’s surely an understatement in describing the continuous racist slurs non-Malays have had to endure.

Using non-Malays – particularly the Christians – as bogeymen hasn’t ended, even more than six decades after independence.

The situation has probably worsened because social media has made things more evident and amplified them. Thankfully though, politicians selling venom to their target audience can no longer be a covert affair.

These chameleons used to stir the hornet’s nest of race and religion with the Malays, portraying themselves as champions of their community. And then, they have no qualms attending events at Chinese new villages, where they try to please the residents by professing to be one people. Just to add value to the “show”, even a calligraphy writing session is entertained.

Next on their “tour” – get on stage, put their palms together, and greet the people in Tamil, and then do the dance bit, of course. And we bought all that, believing they portrayed the real Malaysia.

Incredibly, some are still doing the rounds. For a fresh twist, the LBGT element has even been thrown in now, and despite the charade being recorded, clarification must be issued to say otherwise. You know, I didn’t mean it.

Someone has forgotten that it isn’t only the ghosts, drunkards and LBGT community who are still awake at 11pm and need to use the toll.

These commuters include nurses, doctors, policemen, security guards, hawkers, taxi drivers, restaurant employees, firemen, factory workers, food deliverers and of course, journalists too, and we often work the infamous graveyard shift.

Scoring points and teaming up with an equally repulsive partner to create suspicion against other fellows, with fictional threats of race and religion, is just unacceptable.

While we cringe over the thought of how there are listeners who buy their hate speech, we expect these politicians to at least rise above these nauseating tactics and convince the people that they can provide better governance and deliver more than the present government.

They should prove to the people that the new government’s failings include not fulfilling its election promises, allowing the cost of living to go up and watching the ringgit’s value shrink. And to add ammunition, highlight how some ministers have even failed their probation.

That’s what a fault-finding Opposition is supposed to do – ensure check and balance, and behave like a government in-waiting, but here we have opposition Members of Parliament who can’t wait to broker a deal by defecting to the government’s side of the fence.

There’s another distateful story. It’s about an Umno MP who crossed over to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and had the gall to admit that he was doing it for the constituents.

So, we have an odd situation where opposition MPs mourned the defeat of the previous government even after almost a year, and now plot to join the new government. Not plot to topple, of course, not that again, but plot to join. Naturally, it’s in the interest of the people.

We believe you, well, some of us do. Most of us know it’s just a lie, but hey, we are in the era of malu apa

Then, there are the “remnants”, who probably won’t be accepted by the new government, and figure that the only way for them to get back on the gravy train is to stoke the fires of racial and religious sensitivity. You’ve got to give it to this lot, though. They are, at least, fighting back, although their methods are pretty despicable.

However, the hate speeches will likely work in some constituencies, where, like oil, it burns the minds and hearts of angry voters who are already struggling to put food on the table for their families.

Still, it’s the pits when someone like Barisan Nasional secretary-general Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz resorts to claiming that having a non-Muslim Attorney General is not “lawful” since he took oath without swearing on the Quran. Nazri, of course, is bluffing, but he’s like those snake oil peddlers who will say anything to make a sale.

Nowhere in the Federal Constitution does it state that an AG needs to take an oath using the Quran. And surely, we won’t expect the likes of Nazri to concede that in the history of Malaya, there were six British AGs.

Cecil Sheridan, who died aged 88 in 2000, was the last British Attorney-General of Malaya and helped in drafting the constitution of its successor state, Malaysia.

When Malaya attained independence in 1957, Sheridan was promoted to Solicitor-General and in 1959, became the country’s Attorney-General. He also helped in the preparations for the formation of Malaysia in 1963 and in the process, worked closely with Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister of Malaya, Tun Razak Hussein, its deputy Prime Minister, and Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore.

True, the eight subsequent successors were Malays, but there’s no race and religion criteria in the appointment of the top-ranking public prosecutor of the country.

The first Lord President of Malaysia – now renamed Chief Justice – was a Scot named Tun Sir James Thompson, who assumed the post in 1963 when Malaysia was formed. He held the post until 1966.

Likewise, after independence in 1957, Malaysia’s first two finance ministers were ethnic Chinese – Tun H.S. Lee and Tun Tan Siew Sin. However, from 1974 until very recently, the post had been held by Malays.

So, what we are effectively saying is that our founding fathers had no issue with the ethnicity of these important posts such as chief judge, attorney general and finance ministers. However, as six decades have worn on, we have become more degenerate, insisting on focusing on race and religion, instead of qualifications, credibility and integrity as the main criteria?

Certainly, these men, who held the loftiest positions, did well then, and many of us can accept that they didn’t collude with individuals to loot the wealth of this country and the Malays – who make up the bulk of Malaysians.

The harsh reality is that the pilfering and corruption are shamelessly executed by those claiming to fight for their race and religion. They shouldn’t blame anyone else or try to fan the flames of racial discontent to save themselves. Malaysians are tired of such perversion, so we can’t allow such incorrigible politics to proliferate in our beloved country.

One Chinese Finance Minister, a Christian Chief Justice and an Indian Attorney-General aren’t going to be able to control a country of 31 million people, where Malays and the indigenous people make up 61.7%, compared to the the shrinking Chinese (20.8%) and Indian (6.2%) population.

As for religion, according to a 2010 estimate, Muslims number most at 61.3%, Buddhists 19.8%, Christians 9.2%, Hindus 6.3% with Confucianism, Taoism and other Chinese practices at 1.3%, others 0.4%, no religion 0.8%, unspecified 1%.

As for the 1.6 million civil servants – the then-Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim told Parliament that as at December 2014, the ethnic composition of the civil service was as follows: 78.8% Malays, Bumiputera Sabah (6.1%), Bumiputera Sarawak (4.8 %), Chinese (5.2 %), Indians (4.1 %), other Bumiputera (0.3%) and others (0.7%).

As for the police force, then-Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said non-Malays only made up 5% of the 133,212-strong force.

“Of the total, 80.23% or 106,871 are Malays, while Chinese make up only 1.96% (2,615), Indians 3.16% (4,209), Punjabis 0.21% (275) and others 14.44% (19,242),” he said in replying a question by Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah (Amanah-Kuala Terengganu).

And we haven’t even counted the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the Malays holding key posts in the Cabinet, and of course, the overwhelmingly Malay armed forces, numbering 420,000 personnel. It’s downright contemptible for our politicians to make fictional claims of non-Malays gaining control of the country, when the facts and figures clearly speak for themselves. For most rational Malaysians, we just want to see a clean government and civil service, which can safeguard our national interest, regardless of race and religion.

The late Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping famously said that it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches the mice.

Our recent history has showed that our big fat cats didn’t catch the mice but ended up becoming rats themselves.

Lake Baikal: A Siberian land frozen in time

Lake Baikal presents visitors with many picturesque views. Photo: Cliff Lai

I wasn’t good in both Maths and Science subjects in school. I recall one infuriating teacher threatening to banish me to Timbuktu or Siberia, as punishment. At that point, as a squirming student, I had no idea where these strange-sounding places were, but they certainly sounded far.

Indeed, they were far and isolated when I later looked them up on the world map. One is in Mali and the other in modern Russia.

But thanks to the teacher, those two places stuck in my mind, particularly Siberia. While Maths had no place in my realms of interest, Literature certainly did.

As a teenager, I buried myself in the works of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist and historian.

I read many of his books, which allowed me to better understand the hardship of dissidents who were cruelly sent off to the Gulag forced labour camp in freezing Siberia.

By the time I finished his series of books on these cruel places, I had planned to see for myself what Siberia would be like.

Siberia is fast becoming a top tourist destination. Photo: Wong Chun Wai

In the 19th century, a million convicts were sentenced to hard labour and banished to these punishing places, many with their families in tow.

As I became a young adult, Euro disco sensation Boney M entered my life, singing about Rasputin. According to the song, he was Russia’s greatest love machine.

And when I looked up the character depicted, I learnt that it was Grigori Rasputin, a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed prophet who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch. And yes, Rasputin was Siberian!

Fast forward to 2019 – the Chinese New Year seasonal heatwave did enough for me to pack my bags and head for ice-cold Siberia. To be more precise, the blue ice of Lake Baikal in south eastern Siberia.

Thanks to modern transportation, Siberia is no longer a great distance. In fact, my connecting flight from Bangkok to Irkutsk only took six hours. The time zone between the capital of Siberia and Kuala Lumpur is the same, too.

Having lost interest in cities and their flaky man-made tourist traps, Siberia was a natural step in my growing interest for off-the-beaten-path adventures.

Besides the promise of endless supply of vodka by my tour operator, Leesan, I needed no other convincing because Lake Baikal is one of the world’s great natural wonders.

It’s the world’s largest freshwater lake in terms of volume, and the oldest at 25 million years. It is also the deepest, at 1,700m.

Lake Baikal is one of the worlds great natural wonders. Photo: Cliff Lai

With a surface area bigger than Belgium – and many times bigger than Singapore – it contains nearly one quarter of all the world’s freshwater, which is approximately equivalent to all five of the North American Great Lakes combined.

“The Earth’s deepest inland body of water and its massive stone basin is so large that all of the rivers on the planet would take an entire year to fill it.

“While more than 300 rivers flow in, only one – the Angara – flows out, eventually draining into the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of kilometres to the north,” CNN Travel reported.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, aptly declared Lake Baikal a World Heritage site in 1996.

But there was another persuasive reason why I wanted to see Lake Baikal. Like in many other places, human-induced climate change is taking its toll on this spectacular body of water.

The lake itself has become warmer – even though as a first-time visitor from the tropics, I couldn’t tell – and seasonal ice is present for a shorter time and is thinner these days. Its water is also stratified for longer periods, says a report.

Dont have a car? No worries, just rent some special bicycle to ride around Lake Baikal. Photo: Wong Chun Wai

If you live long enough to see it, Lake Baikal could be a warmer experience, a time when rainfall will also be more prevalent.

But now, it’s still mind-boggling to see this massive snowy landscape turn into a highway, with vans zooming across the frozen lake. The thickness of the ice on Lake Baikal varies from 70cm to 150cm (60cm of ice can already withstand 10 tons of weight).

There was another first for me – I have neither seen nor travelled in a UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod), a Russi•an m•ilitary off-road automobile. I was told that I would be on a four-wheel drive, but this strange-looking armoured vehicle was something else.

The robust vehicle made the expedition over the sub-zero frozen lake that much more of an adventure.

This vehicle helps you glide around the icy lake. Photo: Leesan

With plenty of sharp, protruding ice blocks on the surface, my Buryat driver expertly navigated across the lake, though that didn’t stop us from being thrown around when we hit some bumpy stretches.

Like most Russians, he barely knew how to smile. The Bruce Lee and Visit Hong Kong magnets on his car made the over-sized Buryat look like an MMA fighter. His stoicism and inability to speak English convinced me to avoid small talk, and instead, leave him to just drive over the lake.

Buryats, numbering about 500,000 in Russia, are of Mongol stock, and the largest indigenous group in Siberia. Irkutsk, in fact, is only about 500km away from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

The only time he spoke was through our guide, when he wanted us to know that there was a Buddhist stupa on Ogoy island on the lake, which we drove past.

You will get your Instagram-worthy shot at Lake Baikal. Photo: Cliff Lai

My ignorance had led me to believe that Russians were just atheists or Orthodox Christians, but the Buryats were either Buddhists or animists.

When the rough ride finally came to an end, what greeted me was an incredible, out-of-this-world sight. Standing in front of me were giant turquoise spires of ice. These natural sculptures were so majestic and incredibly beautiful, simply beyond words.

“When the lake freezes during the winter, an amazing phenomenon takes place: large shards of transparent ice form on the surface of the lake, giving the amazing appearance of turquoise ice,” a report said.

The white-layered air bubbles on the ice – the result of methane gas produced by algae – and the lines of cracks are certainly Instagram-worthy. It’s simply nature creating art.

The white-layered air bubbles on the ice are simply gorgeous. Photo: Cliff Lai

The thickness of the ice is between 70cm and 150cm. Photo: Florence Teh

I also saw many beautiful ice formations on the islands we visited, which writer Chris Wright described as “remnants of high waves that crashed against the sides during early storms and frozen solid. They were weird and smooth and wonderful, shining in the late afternoon sun and dripping as they began to melt. Often, the bottom 20cm or so have thawed away, leaving them hanging above the ice.”

To the dissident prisoners who were sent to the Gulag, Siberia – 4,200km away from Moscow – this was a hell hole.

Ironically, Siberia is now becoming a tourist gem, with the magnificent Lake Baikal, its showcase.

At the airport, immigration and customs signs sport Chinese characters, the nation is well aware of the tourist dollars, or rubles, that could roll in. And at the spots I visited at Lake Baikal, the presence of the Chinese was obvious.

Sunset at Lake Baikal is spectacular. Photo: Leesan

There are even Chinese restaurants in Irkutsk. Most of the hotels we stayed at had rice as part of the buffet, and on one occasion, even rice porridge was available for breakfast.

It came as no surprise to see many Thai tourists milling about, too, given the direct flight from Bangkok.

To share a travel tip: Visas are needed, but interestingly, no immigration forms required filling to enter Siberia.

In the final moments before my departure, I passed through streets named after familiar characters, including communist icons Lenin and Marx. However, Irkutsk is also known for naming its streets after Siberian writers including Zagoskin, Omulevskaya, Yadrinzev and Vaginskaya.

And of course, it’s time to get some of Valentin Rasputin’s works. Irkutsk was the home of this well-known Russian writer, and many of his novels and stories are set in the Angara River.

To my teacher who wanted to banish me to Siberia, I can only express my gratitude for putting the seed of the place in my head, which led me to read some of the greatest literary works, including those by Siberian writers.

No, Siberia isn’t that cold. In fact, a Russian classic in hand, a bottle of vodka by the side, and a window view of Lake Baikal is all you need to keep warm.