A nation known for its infallible governance has been thrown a curve ball.
SINGAPORE Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat dropped a bombshell when he announced his decision to step down as the leading fourth generation leader.
This simply means he won’t succeed 69-year-old Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Heng, 60, cited age as a factor, saying he will be 65 by the time the Covid-19 crisis is expected to be over, and expressed hope that “a younger leader… (with) a longer runway can take over.”
As part of the arrangement, DPM Heng will step down as the 4G (Fourth Generation) leader and Finance Minister.
Heng has been battling health issues. In 2016, he collapsed during a Cabinet meeting and reportedly suffered a stroke. The Prime Minister’s Office then issued a statement saying Heng’s sudden stroke was due to an aneurysm.
He had to undergo neurosurgery to relieve pressure in his brain due to the bleeding, the statement said.
But Heng continued being politically active after he recovered, and was even touted as the next PM.
In his 40-year career, he has been a police officer, principal private secretary to the late premier Lee Kuan Yew, senior civil servant, head of Singapore’s central bank and education minister, and is currently Finance Minister.
Heng, a Harvard and Cambridge graduate, has been described by the press as a hands-on leader, kind-hearted and mild-mannered. His critics, however, say he lacks charisma and has been poor at handling the grassroots. Others have condemned him for not being a political street fighter.
Whenever I’ve cabbed it in Singapore, the drivers have invariably asked me embarrassing questions about Malaysia, subtly putting our country down, but in more recent times, it has been the other way round.
I tend to feel uneasy listening to their grouses about their leaders, especially those concerning the high cost of living and job opportunities.
The complaint has always been about Singaporean leaders’ lacking empathy – them not being in touch with the ground despite their impressive academic qualifications.
Veteran Singapore journalist PN Balji, writing in Yahoo! News Singapore, opines that Heng’s explanation wasn’t convincing and has left many unanswered questions.
He said Singapore’s well-choreographed leadership succession has gone “topsy turvy”, even though Hsien Loong had already pledged to stay on till the end of the pandemic.
“The Singapore system is such that everything is well planned. Now Mr Heng steps aside and we don’t know who is going to take over.
“He is not going to be Finance Minister, but he’s still going to be DPM for a while. It’s all very intriguing and unsettling for Singapore, ” Baljit wrote.
Baljit is also unconvinced by the 4G leader’s citing the pandemic as a reason for the disruption in leadership succession.
“Covid-19 has been here for a year. Is it worse than what it was a year ago? And PM Lee has already said he will not hand it over until Covid-19 is over. So, what is the pressure on Heng Swee Keat?”
Others say Heng has been fumbling, citing a 2019 parliamentary session as an example.
Yahoo! News reported that having proposed a motion that called on Workers Party Members of Parliament, Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim, to recuse themselves from financial matters relating to the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), he (Heng) was meant to carry the ball.
“Instead, just minutes into the debate on the motion, Heng had to call for a time-out. He hummed and hawed, flipping through his folder like a student stumbling through his class presentation.
“Tellingly, clips of PM Lee looking exasperated and instructing Heng on what to say in the session had been circulating online. The latter’s reputation has always been that of a genial technocrat, and not a political street fighter.
“Then came the 2020 election, when Heng made his infamous ‘East Coast Plan’ gaffe and led his East Coast team to a less than convincing victory, with just 53.41% of the vote share.
“And despite delivering five pandemic Budgets, he was not at the front and centre of the government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, raising questions about whether he inspired confidence among his own colleagues.”
So, what’s next? The attention is now on Minister for Trade and Industry and Minister in charge of Public Affairs, Chan Chun Sing, 51, Transport Minister, Ong Ye Kung, 51, Minister of Education, Lawrence Wong, 48, and Minister for National Development and Minister in charge of Social Services Integration, Desmond Lee, 44.
While Heng has said he is ready to give it all up at 60, and Hsien Loong planning his exit at 70, this seems a stark contrast to Malaysia, where old is gold, apparently.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad seems ready to be Prime Minister again at 96, while veteran Umno leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah also thinks he is PM material at 84 years old.
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will blow out the candles for 74 this year, while DAP’s Lim Kit Siang just turned 80 recently.
They don’t seem to have a life. It’s sad but, we’re expected to believe that they are doing this for the people. Of course, we will believe them. Demi rakyat dan negara. Yes, we’ve heard that one before.
It’s ironic that there’s no expiry date for a political career, yet, for those voting politicians into office, 18 is still not the valid age for exercising their civil rights.
Succession planning has little priority in Malaysian politics. No one wants to give up the pursuit of power, believing it’s their God-given right to be Prime Minister.
The US has found the world order quickly shifting and is feeling uneasy with the challenge from China.
THE legend of Admiral Zheng He (more commonly known as Cheng Ho to most Malaysians) has always fascinated me, being a history student with Peranakan roots in Penang.
In fact, I took the opportunity to travel to Nanjing, China, to pay respects to the great man at his tombstone.
The only snag was, Zheng He’s resting place remains a mystery, he who led historic voyages to South-East Asia and eastern Africa.
His remains have never been found, leading many to believe he received his final rites at sea during his last voyage, sometime in 1433.
But Zheng He is not a Uighur (pronounced as wee ger). He was from the Hui ethnic group, which comprises Muslims.
The history of Islam in China goes back more than a staggering 1,300 years.
While Zheng He is probably one of the most famous Muslims, there were others during the Ming rule, Muslim military generals including Mu Ying, Hu Dahai, Lan Yu, Feng Sheng and Ding Dexing.
There was also the famous Confucian Muslim scholar, Ma Zhu, who served during the Ming dynasty. The name Ma is the Chinese counterpart to Muhammad.
Today, there are 25 million Muslims living in China. The Hui is the largest group (48%), followed by the Uighur (41%), and together, they make up about 90% of the total Muslim population. The other Muslims include Kazakh (6,1%) and Dongxiang (2.5%), followed by the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Salar, Tajik, Bonan and Tatar groups. They live mostly in Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan, and even in Beijing and Xian.
My trips to China have taken me to Xinjiang by air, road and train, where I spent weeks meeting these beautiful ethnic minorities.
I travelled on the Silk Road and tried imagining how ancient traders treaded the same path. Famed Italian merchant, Marco Polo, probably used the same route in the 13th Century to look for spices, silk and carpets.
My journey took me across the Taklamakan desert on long overnight trains to Turpan (or the Flaming Mountains), the setting of the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West, of the Monkey God fame.
The trip concluded in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the far northwest of China.
Urumqi was a major hub on the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty’s golden age, and today, it has one of the world’s largest bazaars.
Walking through the markets reminded me of the souq in the Middle East, being surrounded by the blue-eyed Uighur and their distinct Turkish looks, while blonde Russians, all speaking Mandarin, were among the other Chinese. It was an exotic place, indeed.
As a “banana” (a term describing a Western-educated Chinese with Western world views, and can’t speak Mandarin), I was lucky to have scholars from Universiti Malaya explain the historical and academic aspects of China.
I have also travelled to Xian, where China’s ancient capital, Chang’an, is located. It was home to more than 10 dynasties.
It was a delight for me to step into the mosques and immerse in local Muslim culture. Islam has long been part of Xian history, where the terracotta soldiers stand guard.
But today, Xinjiang is in the international news for all the wrong reasons. Damaging words, including genocide, have been hurled at it. The grim and gruesome word means killing many people from an ethnic group with the aim of wiping it out.
There is little evidence, if at all, to prove genocide, but it’s such a strong emotive word that it recalls the Holocaust and Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia.
The Xinjiang cotton fields are alleged to have practised forced labour, even though it’s common knowledge that machines are required for large scale productions. There have also been accusations of rape.
Nothing is spared in the mind games between the two superpowers (US and China) to discredit each other.
Reports on the issue have come thick and fast from CNN and BBC, almost on a daily basis, in fact.
It’s hard to ignore that since the protests in Hong Kong began, they have become more involved in instigative journalism than investigative journalism.
Since the racist campaign by Donald Trump, where China was blamed for the spread of the coronavirus, Americans and many ill-informed Westerners have looked at ethnic Asians – especially those with Chinese features – negatively.
They have lumped all Orientals together as Chinese, just like how some think turbaned Sikhs with beards must be Taliban.
Now, under the Biden Administration, there is little difference, except perhaps Joe is less antagonistic, though the anti-China sentiments remain.
From the coronavirus to Huawei, and Tik Tok through to purported spy scholars and the South China Sea, and now Xinjiang cotton, it has become a concerted campaign.
We all know the US has little love for Muslims anywhere in the world.
The US has dropped enough bombs in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, as well as imposed sanctions against Iran, to substantiate that claim. The US has also turned a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinians.
These assaults were launched on the pretext of destroying weapons of mass destruction owned by the Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi regimes, though we now know fact from fiction.
While the two weren’t angels (but more dictators), the fanatical Islamic State took over after the two were deposed and worsened the situation.
Now, the attention is China. It’s the perfect villain – communist rule, no elections and a campaign against Muslims in Xinjiang.
Most Americans can neither pronounce Xinjiang nor point it out on a map, although that seems a moot point to them.
The truth is, the US is jittery because its dominance is over. The world order has changed.
While the US was busy executing its campaign in the name of upholding human rights and western values, and burning trillions of dollars on arsenal, the Chinese spent the last decades building their nation and eradicating poverty.
No one should be surprised when China overtakes the US in the world economy. It didn’t happen overnight, though.
Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou may not be representative of the whole of China, especially compared to third-tier cities and rural areas, but credit where it’s due for the absence of homeless colonies in the cities.
As a Malaysian who has regularly visited China, I feel poor whenever I’m there. The glitzy skyscrapers, efficient transport system, low crime rate, affluence and orderly city administration has shown that China has certainly arrived.
The Chinese have become visibly wealthier and sophisticated, and while their tendency to flaunt their wealth rubs many the wrong way, they have simply become what the early rich Americans used to be. The rich Chinese are loud and brash, but along the way, they – just like the Americans did then – will change.
Rather than demonise China and its people, the US could do well with promoting its values, many of which are universal in nature, such as the rule of law, protecting individual rights, improving living standards and driving the engine of innovation.
The US remains the preferred destination for most people seeking migration.
The immigrants, including Muslims who refused to integrate, could have chosen Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Kuwait or Senegal, but they picked the US.
We embrace American culture and its lifestyle, especially Hollywood movies, Disneyland, burgers, Coca- Cola and music. That speaks volumes of how most of us admire the US.
While the Chinese are now at a stage where they are content with growth and material wealth, they will eventually question issues like environment, inequality and self-suffrage, when they find themselves without a safety net.
The expansion of the middle class has always been similar all over the world. When the stomach and pockets are full, people have time to talk about democratic ideals.
But for now, the chaos and destruction in Hong Kong and racism in the US have given reason for China, and Chinese all over the world, to push back, or even detest the aggressive campaign by the US. This is nothing more than blatant bullying.
It isn’t fair play, unlike what the US claims, because there’s clearly a lack of respect for competition.
We all believe “democracy is the worst system of government, except for everything else, ” as Winston Churchill said. It’s loud and messy, as we know, but power is more diffused in democracy, where it’s equally shared through the population, as James Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral put it.
The Xinjiang campaign will come back to haunt the US. Unlike other Muslims in China, the Uighur have indulged in ISIS activities, including being actively involved in Syria, where many combatants are members of an Al Qaeda offshoot.
Reuters and Associated Press have reported of at least 5,000 Uighur in ISIS operating in Syria and Iraq.
Many of them from the outlawed Turkistan Islamic Party, are pushing for an Islamic state in Xinjiang, which China surely won’t tolerate.
That perhaps explains why China takes a different approach to the Uighur compared to other Muslims, though these actions remain open to debate.
But here’s the irony – while the US and its western allies are busy drumming up the issue, the powerful Muslim countries led by Saudi Arabia, along with 36 other countries, have defended China’s policies in Xinjiang in a letter released in 2019.
The world is not keen on getting entangled in an escalating trade war between the US and China.
We want both countries to work together, if they really believe and practise what they preach to the rest of us, the minion nations. And if they do, the world stands to benefit immeasurably.
HARDLY a week goes by without a titled person – usually a Datuk or a Datuk Seri – landing in hot water.
This time around, the police are hunting for a 33-year-old, wanted for his alleged involvement in a money laundering and commercial syndicate.
Malaysians must be wondering how on earth a young man, barely into his second decade of work, could be awarded such an honour, whether at state or national level.
Well, he isn’t the only one. More and more young people have such honorific titles because some states don’t impose an age limit on recipients.
Some states seem more generous in awarding these titles and medals.
This doesn’t look like it’s just an alarming situation, but more a critical one, unless there’s an understanding to impose some form of moratorium or quota on titles awarded each year by states, and at national level.
In a 2002 article, Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar said that in 2001, 650 titles were given out. He took an average of 600 per year, so in a span of 19 years, there were 11,400 Datukship awarded.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more!
There’s nothing wrong with the system because it has a rich tradition going back to the Malay sultanate system, but over recent decades, it has lost its lustre and credibility, too.
The perception among many Malaysians is that such titles are for sale.
Even if this feeling can’t be substantiated, that is unfortunately what many Malaysians generally think of titled persons.
To everyday Malaysians, many of these people haven’t done enough, or anything at all, for the betterment of society.
The two most outspoken Rulers – the Sultans of Selangor and Johor – have openly expressed their views, or more precisely, dismay, on the situation.
Kudos must be accorded to the Sultan of Pahang for revoking the Datuk title of several people recently.
In the case of Datuk Seri Nicky Liow Soon Hee, he has become an instant household name for all the wrong reasons.
He’s now a fugitive with two investigation papers opened on him by Johor police under the Anti-Money Laundering Act (Amla) and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma).
He was arrested for assaulting two Rela members on duty at the Kou Ong Yah temple in Kuala Lumpur four years ago. He was later acquitted and discharged.
His modus operandi, probably to impress his clients or business associates, appears to be getting photographed with VVIPs, especially ministers and top police officers, to imply he’s close to these powerful figures.
It doesn’t help that our VVIPs are mostly easily accessible and generous with having their pictures taken with almost anyone to avoid being accused of snobbery.
So red faces abounded last week when many of his pictures with VVIPs went viral. Someone in a photo even called me to say he has no personal relationship with the wanted man.
There were other pictures of him in a room, framed against a stunning KL skyline, and cut with a stylish pose with a luxury car to suggest a man of great wealth.
He has arrived, and as Johan said, so has the Malaysian Dream – to have a title to gain instant respect in society and, sometimes, to reap the rewards of impunity.
Of course, Nicky isn’t the first with a questionable reputation to earn a Datuk title.
Credit to him, he hasn’t been charged or convicted. However, there have been cases where persons with criminal records were those with titles.
It simply means the vetting process by the selection committee has failed miserably because the police, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency, and other agencies, should be consulted for background info and financial status.
There’s obviously a demand for titles, and it has reached the point where Malaysians are prepared to buy dubious awards from purported royalties from southern Philippines. Never mind if these titles are worthless.
Then there are also Datuk impersonators, who will now get the book thrown at them for such stunts.
There are calls to have a digital registrar like the National Regis-tration Department’s, where the status and authenticity of titles can be verified.
Many titled Malaysians who have worked hard to earn honour, be it as long-serving civil servants, the police and army personnel, businessmen, community leaders, academicians, professionals and sportsmen, are obviously unhappy about those who don’t deserve it yet. Honour, as the saying goes, must be earned.
No wonder many Malaysians think that the real Datuks are grandfathers who have little ones to hold and care for in the family. Truth be told, that’s the real Malaysian dream.
TIMES are dire, but the good news is the price of crude palm oil has at least gone up, offering a ray of hope for economic recovery. It’s at a 13-year high, and while there are reports claiming sustaining it would be difficult, the point is that there are reasons to rejoice because it has finally climbed.
The price of brent crude oil is also expected to rise throughout April, according to forecasts.
We know how important these two sectors are to Malaysia, but we need to address some serious concerns.
Palm oil plantations are struggling with the shortage of foreign labour with no one to harvest the fruits.
We must let foreign workers return if Malaysia wants to retain its position as a global palm oil producer.
The Sarawak government has allowed foreign labour back into the state since March 1, but that isn’t so elsewhere.
The directive from the Sarawak government is simple – employers are responsible for adhering to the mandatory two-week quarantine for their workers, and the administration of Covid-19 tests.
We can imagine the frustrations of planters, unable to fully exploit the current high CPO price because they can’t optimise production in their estates.
According to a report, a pre-MCO survey by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) indicated a shortage of 31,021 harvesters among respondents, which covered 76% of the industry.
Based on a conservative productivity estimate per harvester of 1.5 tonnes fresh fruit bunch (FFB) a day, and 280 working days a year, crop loss amounts to almost 20% in yield.“This in turn translates to a loss in production of 3.429 million tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO) and 857,000 tonnes of palm kernel (PK) a year. Assuming CPO and PK prices of RM3,000 and RM1,800 per tonne respectively, the opportunity loss amounts to an estimated RM11.83bil of revenue a year. Income tax revenue loss to the government is estimated at RM896 million a year, ” according to a joint press statement issued recently by 12 associations representing the interests of the Malaysian palm oil supply chain.
The plantation sector has a good argument because its workers operate in a rural set-up amidst an expansive landscape, so the nature of their work assures built-in social distancing.
This is unlike crowded factories in urban areas.
Obviously, we need maids again. As Malaysia opens up and work from home comes to an end, most of us will return to our workplace and invariably leave our home affairs in the lurch.
The process and preparations need to begin now so that we can conduct Covid-19 tests on these foreign domestic workers as a prerequisite for their return to Malaysia.
Most working couples are now relying on cleaners rather than stay-home maids to clean their homes, and busy urbanites also need help for caring for their kids or elderly parents.
The re-start has to begin now, since movement restrictions are being eased and more businesses are resuming.
For starters, the Immigration Department and Health Ministry must consolidate the standard operating procedures to enable maids to return.
Obviously, employers struggling with the problem are just as concerned with the health status of their maids.
Certainly, these domestic workers coming from their countries need to undergo a minimum seven-day quarantine at a designated hotel, which is paid for either by the recruitment agencies or the employers.
Each maid will surely need to take a Covid-19 test at their respective country before flying here, and if need be, go through another round of tests before completing quarantine.
Restaurants which have resumed business are now looking for staff, too.
Malaysia needs to start welcoming these guest workers. It’s bad enough that our country isn’t their preferred working destination since we don’t offer the most attractive wages, and our ringgit isn’t the most sought after either.
Let’s be frank. You only need to ask domestic workers what’s on their mind.
Still, Malaysia offers much work opportunity in kickstarting its economy. So, we could do with the help of our guest workers. In fact, we’re desperate.