Author Archives: wcw

The truth is out there

While the world continues to battle a deadly threat, two superpowers seem to be making Covid-19 a pawn in their fight for supremacy.

MOST of us take US President Donald Trump’s words with a pinch of salt. We all know he is inconsistent, temperamental, erratic and well, some would say, even unstable.

It must be difficult to work at the White House, given the continuous dismissals of key staff, and even more arduous for its diplomats worldwide.

Then there is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is resolutely on a war path with China. The rivalry with another big gun is understandable, but the obsession is unnerving because Pompeo indulges in daily tirades against the republic. But for the rest of the world, it’s unsettling because no country would fancy being caught in the crossfire.

The Americans and Chinese are equally important to the world, so taking sides is the last thing we need to be doing. But the blame game isn’t helping anyone, especially when we’re all still battling the dreaded virus. The back and forth between them has left us none the wiser and bewildered.

So, where did the virus come from? The wet market in Wuhan, which sells exotic animal meat, or a laboratory not far from it? Either way, the devastating consequence is over 276,000 deaths and 4.02 million infected across the globe.

The answer remains unknown, but Pompeo claims he has “enormous evidence, ” although he has yet to back his claims. Trump, without divulging details, has also claimed he has seen evidence the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source.

If you read some of the media reports, the laboratory is often depicted as a secret lab, like some kind of Cold War setting from a James Bond movie. However, it isn’t because it was set up with the help of France and is widely known to the science community.

Ironically, both Trump and Pompeo seem to have conveniently ignored the US Director of National Intelligence, who said its analysts were still examining the origins of the outbreak. The gist is that there is “wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”

The editor-in-chief of The Lancet, Richard Horton, had said it’s “not helpful” and “unfair” to blame China for being the source of the Covid-19 pandemic, and added “China isn’t responsible for this pandemic. It just happened.”

The Lancet is a reputable weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal and the world’s oldest and best-known of its kind.

Then, there’s the recent CNN report which said intelligence shared among Five Eyes nations indicates it is “highly unlikely” that the coronavirus outbreak was a result of an accident in a laboratory, and instead, originated in a Chinese market. CNN quoted two Western officials, who cited an intelligence assessment that appears to contradict claims by both Trump and Pompeo.

The countries in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing coalition is made up of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These nations share a broad range of intelligence in one of the world’s tightest multilateral arrangements.

The problem with leaders like Trump and Pompeo, who have been bashing “Communist China” in their rhetoric ahead of the US presidential election, is that they like to think, or try to convince their listeners, that China runs inferior, sub-standard laboratories. This is just a well-orchestrated political and media campaign, with the support of its allies in Europe, Australia, and some say, Taiwan and India, too, to cast aspersions on China.

But the Wuhan Institute is a top-notch laboratory which has, for years, collaborated with its global counterparts. One significant cooperation is with James Le Duc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas, one of the largest active biocontainment facilities on a US campus, which was closely involved in training the Wuhan institute’s staff from before it opened in January 2018.

Le Duc, who toured the lab just before it began operations, said scientists from the Wuhan institute had been active in ongoing dialogue facilitated by science bodies from the US and China, via participating in discussions and sharing their work. He also defended the institute’s deputy director Shi Zhengli, whose work in researching viruses in bats made her a target for conspiracy theorists, according to the South China Morning Post. She is the research scientist who discovered the link between bats and the original SARS virus which afflicted the world in 2003.

“She has participated in each of our dialogues; in every session, she has been fully engaged, very open and transparent about her work, and eager to collaborate, ” Le Duc was quoted by the SCMP.

It’s common knowledge now that Trump didn’t take the virus seriously initially, dismissing it as a type of common flu and completely ignoring its deadly threat.

Putting a timeline to his series of follies, on Feb 26, Trump was reported saying, “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” Then on March 27, he still defined the coronavirus “a flu, ” or a germ.

China has naturally faced criticism for its lack of transparency with its initial slow response to the outbreak first reported in December. It’s undeniable that bureaucratic China doesn’t practise the kind of openness and swiftness in dealing with information like other democratic nations.

But scepticism remains rife over the details of confirmed cases and fatalities in other highly populated countries, even if they are democracies. Inexplicably, no accusations have been hurled at them.

Its either they have not been open – for economic reasons – or they have simply not conducted sufficient testing. Or, they just can’t afford it. Take your pick.

Let’s not deliberate integrity and credibility here. The world is acutely aware of the infamous confession, or rather, boasting by Pompeo at a talk in Texas A & M University on April 15,2019.

“When I was a cadet, what’s the first – what’s the cadet motto at West Point? You will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do. I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. (Laughter.) It’s – it was like – we had entire training courses, ” Pompeo told the audience.

When the US and its allies attacked Iraq in 2003, they justified the war with accusations that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s government’s purported links with terrorist organisations, particularly Al-Qaeda. Of course, we’ve known for a while now there were no such weapons as it was spin doctoring at its finest, and Osama bin Laden wasn’t remotely close to the scene of the “crime” either, but instead, hiding somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Likewise, the problem the US has with China isn’t about bats, viruses, tariffs, spies, technology theft, Hong Kong protests, Taiwan, South China Sea, WHO membership or Huawei, but economics and the fear of being displaced at the top.

But the world is worried that as decibels from the White House increase, the flu will degenerate into nothing more than a Cold War between two superpowers.

Here comes the sun

Finally, the real thing: Nasi kandar is one of the things that not everyone can cook from watching YouTube lessons. A nasi kandar restaurant in George Town, Penang, preparing to reopen tomorrow.

IT’S been the best news after 45 days of the movement control order (MCO), where we were mostly in lock down. However, we will never get back to what our lives were before.

The killer virus is still lurking out there. There is neither vaccine nor cure yet, and we know that confirmed cases and fatalities will continue for a long time more.

But the returning freedom, beginning tomorrow, is still cause for celebration, even if it come with caveats.

Unless we are recluses, most of us long for the companionship of our colleagues and friends.

We’ve had to be brave in the face of adversity, claiming we enjoy working from home when we’ve, in fact, pined for some space, which ironically, is away from home. Strangely, that space constitutes the office.

Of course, family bonding is good, but being stuck together for 24 hours, day in and day out, has ended up being “family bondage” (of the wholesome variety) for many.

And as much as staying safe at home can be a blessing, those staying in small flats can tell you how it can just as much be a curse. Like the rest of us, they’ll be itching to get out of their homes the very first thing tomorrow.

I can’t wait for the joy of being stuck in a traffic jam again and listening to the same lame lines from radio deejays, with their tried-and-tested flat jokes, and the condescending tone of personalities appearing on a business station. So much love from so much dislike – that’s life.

I’m not sure what to expect tomorrow, though. I suspect there may be quite a few who will call in sick or take emergency leave. Through no fault of theirs, they’ve probably developed some psychological problems, or they could simply have valid reasons. Ultimately, being cooped up isn’t fun.

Or maybe their car batteries are dead, if they had obediently abided by the MCO, and have not “ke sini dan ke sana” (gone here and there).

Some may just turn up after lunch because they need to handle “urgent matters, ” like meeting clients and collecting overdue payments. And with room still left to stretch the truth a little, given the situation, getting their hair done could likely be another excuse, except that barber shops and hair salons will still be closed.

I guess I will be seeing caps and head scarves. Then again, who’s had the opportunity for self-grooming in a time like this?

I’m not sure if human resources managers or safety officers have devised seating arrangements, especially for those of us whose desks are side by side, which is the setup in many newsrooms.

There will be those who will call up and explain that it’s better for them to work from home.

They probably have sound reasons as some, interestingly, have become more productive since the MCO began. There will be the usual suspects, whom I think still have two or three more seasons of a Netflix show to complete. Sound familiar?

Of course, casualties will abound, too. There will be missing faces who are on no-pay leave or, worse, have been asked to leave their jobs while their bosses struggle to keep the company afloat.

From tomorrow, many employers will be busy looking at how they can restart and pick up the pieces.

For these affected Malaysians, they will have nowhere to go since their companies have either shut down temporarily or permanently. It’s going to be a heart-wrenching story.

Where daily living is concerned, we can no longer leave home without wearing face masks. We’ve become like the people in China, Hong Kong and South Korea, who have been wearing them for a long time now because of the smog, as well as the SARS epidemic from years ago.

I will be wearing the mask daily from now because I want to protect myself and others. Basically, everyone must feel secure and safe.

I can’t wait to take my dogs out for a walk tomorrow. The three of them have been locked in for just as long and they, too, are feeling anxious and frustrated. Two of my beautiful canines are powerful animals which require daily exercise.

Like their master, they, too, have overgrown hair, and long nails which need clipping.

I don’t know when we can travel out of the country again. I haven’t requested refunds from the airlines, preferring to defer my scheduled dates, instead. I’m not even sure if these airlines will still be around in the coming months, though I hope they will.

As for now, with restaurants starting to open and us being allowed to go out, I’m wondering what I’m going to do with all the food I hoarded in my refrigerator.

One lesson I’ve learnt during the MCO period is, not everyone can cook from watching YouTube lessons. Nasi kandar time finally, and a banjir one, please.

We can’t deal with an exodus of refugees

THERE has been a strong shift of opinion in Malaysia towards the Rohingya refugees since the outbreak of the pandemic, especially among the country’s Muslim majority.

If in the past, there were sympathies and support for them on Islamic solidarity grounds, all that has disappeared overnight.

The same politicians who corralled support for them have also changed their tune now.

That’s simply because they have gauged the pulse of the ordinary Muslims well. The outpouring of anger, especially on Bahasa Malaysia social media, has been fierce and loud.

A Rohingya who posted a strong message on Facebook against Malaysians, found his identity and home address immediately exposed, receiving angry retaliatory messages swiftly.

A TV station sent its crew to investigate how a group of Rohingya could have stayed in Malaysia for more than 10 years.

A video of a kopiah-clad Rohingya has also gone viral. In it, a trader selling books on Islam was challenged to recite Islamic prayers by a Malaysian but he could not.

It’s estimated there are more than 100,000 Rohingya in Malaysia. Incredibly, they are regarded the largest stateless population on earth.

In 2016, Datuk Seri Najib Razak led a gathering of Muslim leaders to show support for the Rohingya, but last week, the former prime minister backed the authorities for turning back about 200 Rohingya refugees trying to land on Malaysian shores recently.

The incident has drawn criticism from human rights groups and individuals, but Najib understands the sentiments of many Malaysians, who feel the government needs to prioritise the health, security and livelihoods of Malaysians first and foremost.

Unfortunately, most Malaysians feel the Rohingya have become a burden to the country.

Najib took the issue further when he said they had taken advantage of Malaysia’s generosity.

In declaring Malaysia’s acts of kindness for them, he said: “Sudah diberikan betis, nak peha pulak,” a Malay proverb equating to, ”Give them an inch and they take a yard,” in English.

”We are not cruel, but until when do we need to resolve this problem which began in the 1990s?”

His remarks, expectedly, have drawn the knives from his political nemeses, but Najib understands the grassroots Malay psyche well.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has spoken up about the plight of the Rohingya, and at the United Nations last year, he criticised the UN and Myanmar government for their inaction in resolving the Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar’s military has been accused of slaying thousands of Rohingya in western Rakhine state since 2017, resulting in the mass exodus of this Muslim minority group to neighbouring countries, which led to the world’s largest refugee camp at Cox Bazar in Bangladesh.

But Malaysia has been turning away Rohingya refugees since 2015, when they started turning up here and in Indonesia. This isn’t news.

As their numbers grew exponentially, Malaysia and Indonesia decided on May 20, 2015 to provide temporary shelter for more than 3,000 of the refugees who landed on their shores.

But after the UN appealed to the two nations to take in more, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to shelter 7,000 of them.

Malaysia made it clear that the international community had to play its part in dealing with the crisis, but somehow we ended up cradling the baby.

Despite our help, then-UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein still criticised Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand for turning the refugees away.

The general sentiment among Malaysians is that we have far too many immigrant workers. Official registered foreign workers were estimated at a hair under two million in 2019, while other reports claimed that unofficial estimates showed up to six million of them, or 18.6% of the country’s 32.6 million population.

As of end February 2020, there are some 178,990 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia.

Some 154,080 are from Myanmar, comprising 101,010 Rohingya, 22,810 Chin, and 30,250 others.

According to the UNHCR website, there are about 24,900 refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, including 6,660 Pakistanis, 3,680 Yemenis, 3,290 Somalis, 3,290 Syrians, 2,590 Afghans, 1,830 Sri Lankans, 1,270 Iraqis, 790 Palestinians, and the remainder from miscellaneous countries.

Let’s be realistic. We have little choice but to turn away refugees because once we accept them, word will spread at the camps, and soon, we’ll have a massive influx on our hands.

Malaysia just can’t afford to cope anymore, and neither can Thailand nor Indonesia.

No European, Arab or Asean countries have come to Malaysia to embrace the Rohingya and offer them passports.

How long can we house them, and how many more of them do we want landing on our shores?

If our borders are shut, as per the movement control order, it doesn’t make sense that our shores are gateways for refugees. We are grappling with a pandemic that has infected over 5,800 Malaysians and killed 100. The last thing we need is a new wave of Covid-19, with new clusters formed.

No one should condone racist attacks of any form against minorities or the less fortunate, and those who speak up for refugees.

But we should be aware that unrestricted acceptance of these refugees is certainly not a viable and sustainable solution to the Rohingya issue.

Malaysians have become poorer, and we simply can’t afford to have thousands of refugees turning up here, vulnerable as they may be.

Lest we forget, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and migrant rights because we already have our hands full dealing with this mass of humanity.

We have become poorer, live with it

UNLESS you are in the businesses of selling masks, surgical gloves, ventilators and supplying boxes for food deliveries, the reality is that the rest of us have become poorer.

And if you haven’t had your pay cut, gone on unpaid leave, or at least, asked to clear your annual leave, it could only mean that you must be working in the civil service or for employers with excessively deep pockets.

Harsh reality has set in after almost five weeks of the movement control order (MCO) in Malaysia. It’s the same all over the world, actually, as businesses grapple with the effects of the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week, a list of hotels in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Perak that have been forced to shut down or that have asked their staff to accept pay cuts began to make its rounds on social media.

Hundreds of budget hotels around the country are also at risk of closing down as owners struggle to pay rentals and other operating costs, against zero revenue.

Workers in the hospitality industry, including tourist operators, were among the earliest to be hit hard. The impact on these workers will not just be for the next few months but for the rest of the year, and probably early next year. Airline staff faced the brunt earlier, actually.

The income of most Malaysians has been reduced and this will be worsened by the depreciating value of our ringgit, with food items becoming more expensive eventually.

So, even if the MCO is lifted by the end of May, businesses will still struggle to get operational again.

There will be less demand for some supplies, in any form, and delivery itself will continue to be a problem.

The pay cuts at most companies aren’t just for the next three months but will last until December as employers continue to struggle to earn revenue.

While larger companies, with stronger financial positions, would be able to spare employees on the lower earning bracket, it is much more difficult for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Government aid may be a relief for some in the next few months, but it may just be too late for most SMEs, and unlikely to help them stay afloat.

The biggest problem for many businessmen is the collection of money from clients who themselves are suffering a similar predicament. It’s a vicious circle.

If small-time bosses cannot collect the money, then they cannot afford to pay their workers – it’s that simple, and letting their staff go would be the hardest part, as such talents are among their assets.

Running a business is not running a charity house, and even non-governmental organisations need to find money to pay their full-time staff.

It’s much worse if workers refuse to accept a pay cut, ignoring calls to make voluntary sacrifices, because they are only making it harder for their employers to sustain their business.

Employers have been forced to rethink their spending in order to stay afloat and inevitably staff wages are high on the list.

Once these workers lose their jobs, it will be harder because most employers have imposed a recruitment freeze.

The moral of the story is that it is better to hold on to our jobs, with a lower pay, than to accelerate the closure of our companies.

At some big companies, staff at the highest levels have found their salaries slashed by between 25 and 50 per cent, with the scale and quantum for the rest being fixed accordingly.

As all of us become poorer, it means cutting down meals at restaurants and eating much simpler fare at home. Stop grumbling and be thankful that there is still food on the table.

Many will remove non-essential expenses, reduce fixed expenses, defer holidays, reschedule loan payments, review insurance schedules, downgrade credit cards with annual fees, freeze or terminate club memberships, and seriously take stock of our pantries.

The last thing that we should worry about isn’t getting out of the homes, like the Americans and Britons who seem more concerned about getting their tan or going for walks in the park, but whether we will keep our jobs.

We have no choice but to live much simpler lives from now because we have all become poorer.

Busting post-MCO blues

THE movement control order (MCO)will eventually be lifted, so Malaysia must resume rebooting its economy, while simultaneously calculating losses.

It’s certainly not going to be easy drawing up a post-MCO business strategy, especially since many of our customers and partners have either sunk or are struggling to stay afloat in an unprecedented environment.

There are no business models to fall back on. So, it’s time to fly by the seat of our pants as the world thwarts an unseen enemy against the backdrop of a vaccine remaining a mere vision. Malaysia will recalibrate its economic model, where we must continue with our lives knowing the virus lurks out there freewheelingly.

Ultimately, businesses must resume. While much has been written, sentimentally, about how we have taken the planet and our lives for granted, Covid-19 has also given employers a chance to have a real hard look at their staff, and for the government to test the mettle of their ministers and civil servants.

It’s all hands on deck now. For business organisations, the MCO has provided the opportunity to reveal their staff’s tenacity, determination and resolution to ride through the crisis together as a team.

Unfortunately, drawing up a post-MCO strategy is not for the fainthearted. Instead of pitching in, some of the workforce has resigned to negativity with their employers’ plans for a way out.

This is the time to separate the wheat from the chaff – selfish ones refusing to make sacrifices, and those going the extra mile to ensure their company’s sustainability.

As we pore over our reboot plans, China is obviously a model we should consider because they have much to share with us. Our country is certainly not out of the woods with businesses only feeling their way out.

China’s industrial production reopened smoothly, and even life in Wuhan – the original epicentre of the pandemic – has resumed, though with numerous restrictions still in place. For example, no one can even take a train ride without the “green approval” on their mobile phone. Checks are stringent and the offence is serious.

BMW China resumed operations with its offices opening from Feb 3 and its plant operating since Feb 17. In fact, Xinhua reported that about 85% of its dealers are open.

The report also said that since Feb 10, French cosmetics giant L’Oreal, gradually reopened its operation sites in China, while adhering to strict precautions. It said around 80% of retail locations has reopened, and that traffic has been progressively returning since last month.

Hermes created world headlines recently when the French brand’s Guangzhou store opened and bagged US$2.7mil (RM11.8mil) on its first day, the highest daily haul for a single boutique in China.

So, the purchasing power of many rich Chinese remains intact, and given the number of them out there, it’s a stark reminder to the world of their economic clout, too.

Chinese restaurant chain Haidilao welcomed customers once again after being shut in late January. However, customers reacted angrily when they found that prices had jumped by nearly 6%, sparking outrage in Chinese social media platform, Weibao.

The South China Morning Post reported that Haidilao had to issue an apology and restored prices to pre-closure rates. It ended up offering discounts of up to 33% on takeaway orders.

Likewise Xibei, another Chinese restaurant chain, went down the same path initially, only to put its plan into reverse later. It too had to issue an apology.

Yes, not everything is rosy, particularly in a key sector like automotive, where plants have only slowly been re-opening since March. Production rate is still low due to poor orders and supply chain issues, according to a Roland Berger study.

Automotive sales plunged by 82% in February 2020 compared to Feb 2019. Travel restrictions have been lifted, but for Chinese airlines, there are still no signs of recovery, what with a pessimistic forecast for Q2 2020. On the manufacturing front, 96.6% of large and medium enterprises resumed work from March.

But it’s a good re-start by China, which can best be described as a silver lining because it’s the largest market for many countries, including Malaysia.

Last year, Malaysia and China’s bilateral trade hit another record high, rising to US$124bil (around RM503bil) for the full year 2019, said China’s Ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian, in a report.

Citing Chinese customer statistics, Bai said this is a 14.2% increase in bilateral trade from 2018’s figure of US$108.66bil (RM443bil). China remains Malaysia’s largest trading partner, followed by Singapore and the United States.

“Part of the huge bilateral trade is linked to the investments coming in, because when Chinese investors come to Malaysia to set up factories, they buy equipment from China. Once production increases, a portion of those products are then sold back to China in large percentages.”

For tourism, China has been Malaysia’s third biggest tourist source after Singapore and Indonesia since 2012, displacing Thailand from the top three.

According to the latest statistics, Malaysia has consistently welcomed over two million Chinese tourists a year since 2016. That figure hit a record high of 2.94 million people in 2018. While travel will be down in the doldrums for a while, what needs focus is how well our Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry and the related stakeholders have prepared for once the boom gate is lifted.

Yes, Visit Malaysia 2020 is dead and buried. There will be near-nil international travel for a while.

But the hunger for travel, after months of being locked in, has never been greater, and with airlines struggling to stay afloat, it’s a good time to plan for that eventuality. China could well provide our first arrivals. So, we’ll have no shortage of competitors in Asean who would want to be first to benefit from the initial wave of Chinese tourists.

According to Travel Weekly Asia in an April 2020 report, Thai tourism has already started laying the groundwork.

In a China Thailand Travel Sentiment Survey 2020 conducted in mid-April, based on 1,000 travellers, it found that 71% of respondents indicated a preference to visit Thailand. It found that August, October and December were the most popular months for trips in the remaining half of the year, with Chinese tourists expected to be younger and more independent.

No doubt, the road to recovery will be rough and twisting. Consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) encapsulated that prognosis perfectly by saying governments must develop a resilient and adaptive strategy for re-opening, allowing for adjustments as events unfold and new information emerging.

The weeks of lockdown isn’t a holiday at home, but a time for political and corporate leaders to reflect and think of how to remain in shape, eager to be at the starting blocks and be the first to take off.

So, cut the whining and fight to survive.

Hung dry over wet markets

This photo taken on April 15, 2020 shows a man wearing a face mask while walking at the Wuhan Baishazhou Market in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province. – AFPpic

Little knowledge is dangerous, and the way the west wields it makes it damning for the rest of the world.

THERE’S growing outrage in the West following a report that China is re-opening its wet markets. Though erroneous, in the eyes of westerners, these places are inextricably associated with wild animal markets.

Most of the discontented have never been to a wet market, which is just a place for fresh produce. In fact, this is probably the first time they’ve even heard of the description.

So, when they stumble on the term “wet markets”, their minds immediately race to the infamous Wuhan market where Covid-19 was first reported.

The news involving these wet markets have added fuel to the fire of China bashing, courtesy of the killer virus.

Wet markets are commonplace all over Asia, especially in South-East Asia, because consumers know the produce at these places is fresh.

Unlike the farmers markets in the West, wet markets in Asia mostly have wet floors, hence the name. The climate in this region necessitates the use of copious amounts of ice to maintain food freshness, and coupled with the use of fresh water to keep the place constantly clean, wet markets can seem a chore to navigate.

Markets in the West, even those with street stalls, don’t deal with live, fresh seafood. There are no tanks or tubs filled with live fishes, shellfish or crabs.

Basically, “fresh” sea food in the West comes dead. In fact, most times, prawns are already boiled even. This doesn’t sit well with Asians in general, especially the Chinese.

Asians prefer wet markets over supermarkets for fresh seafood because the difference of their freshness and choices is stark.

In Hong Kong, most wet markets – located on the ground floor of flats – are clean, and they sell an impressive array of Asian seafood.

In China, I’ve even seen live stingrays, squids and octopuses in tubs, which isn’t a sight here.

The largest choice of sea food in Malaysia can probably be found at Sabah’s markets, which have fishes I’ve never seen before in peninsula wet markets.

Yes, I agree sanitary is a concern in wet markets all over Asia, especially at the poultry sections. The pong and poor hygiene in slaughtering chickens, for instance, needs overdue attention by the authorities in the wake of the pandemic. It should be banned, like what Malaysia and Singapore have done.

But the bottom line is – wet markets are not animal markets. Most wet markets don’t sell snakes, dogs, cats, wolf cubs or baby crocodiles.

And certainly, most mainland Chinese, and ethnic Chinese elsewhere, don’t dine on these animals. In fact, as China becomes more affluent and tuned in with the times, there is growing pressure to ban dog meat because it’s simply cruel and unacceptable.

It’s poor argument when some Asians resort to the “culinary tradition” defence to justify their consumption of these animals. Pets are not food for human beings. It’s uncivilised – period!

Thanks to some bizarre food shows on TV, the perception formed is that Asians consume a lot of exotic meat, which is furthest from the truth. So, likewise, not all westerners eat rabbit meat, pheasants or garden snails, either.

And Foie gras – the liver of duck or geese fattened by being force fed corn via a feeding tube – surely can’t be staple food, too.

I’ve always enjoyed visiting wet markets in the Asian countries I’ve been to, because I like the feel and smell of these places. It’s a meeting place for people who go about their lives and a melting pot of local culture and charm.

But young Asians prefer the cleaner and air-conditioned supermarkets, as they regard these outlets healthier and more sustainable.

Affluent Asians find supermarkets more comfortable and in line with their lifestyles. Besides, parking is also more organised than at the often-congested wet markets.

The supermarkets’ ability to buy food produces in large volumes directly from farmers has also made their prices more attractive than those at wet markets.

According to a Euromonitor International report, supermarkets now account for about half of all grocery spending in China, going up about 36% from 1995.

“Add in convenience stores and the like, and so-called modern grocery has about 68% of China’s retail wallet, giving wet markets less than a third.

“Still, that store-based spending is overwhelmingly concentrated in packaged, rather than fresh produce. Foreign retailers that once hoped to dominate China’s staple goods sector such as Carrefour SA and Metro AG have struggled and sold out of local ventures – but wet markets are still going strong.”

Research by N. Chamhuri and P.J. Batt, from Curtin University of Technology Perth, Western Australia, on Malaysians’ preferred source for fresh meat in the Klang Valley, uncovered startling results. Despite the increase in supermarkets and hypermarkets, traditional markets have ably coexisted with modern retail formats and remain the choice for fresh meat.

But Asian governments must clean up their wet markets, even if they aren’t animal markets, since past virus outbreaks have been linked to these places, where the potential for zoonotic transmission (disease that can spread from animals to humans) is gravely higher.

What’s deplorable is that the confusion over wet markets and wildlife markets has led to xenophobia among some US leaders, celebrities and the media, who are all calling for the closure of these food resources in China.

They have ignored, or missed, reports that since Jan 26, China has banned the trade and consumption of wild animals for food, but with news of wet markets being re-opened, old pictures depicting the sale of these animal meats have been recycled as visuals to accompany the news reports.

The truth is, it’s easier to buy wild animals online. Go figure.

And this may come as a surprise, but international wildlife trafficking is worth an estimated US$10 – 20bil (RM44bil – RM88bil) annually, with the US a chief consumer of wildlife products (legal and illegal).

Yet, a poll commissioned by WildAid found that 80% of Americans know little or nothing about illegal wildlife trade within the US.

Perhaps, after watching Joe Exotic in Tiger King on Netflix, Americans would know better, and be stunned to learn that there are more lions in the US than in the whole of Africa.

Dr Noor Hisham – the man of the hour

An honour: CGTN cited Dr Noor Hisham as among the ‘top doctors’ in the world for his approach in handling the Covid-19 pandemic.

HEALTH director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah gets uncomfortable every time the media attempts to extract more about his life.

He has shied away from the praise heaped on him and his team, dismissing the national heroes title, insisting that it’s their service to the ministry which is significant.

However, Dr Noor Hisham hasn’t just become a national figure, he has also gained international attention now.

Every afternoon, at 5pm, Malaysians will be glued to their television sets to have this lanky doctor update them on the Covid-19 situation.

He gives straightforward answers, and that has been reassuring to most Malaysians since the movement control order (MCO) began a month ago.

Sure, sometimes he slips into medical terminology, which can leave us perplexed, but usually, his explanations are clear.

Dr Noor Hisham’s command of Bahasa Malaysia and English is impeccable, and as Malaysians, we feel proud when our leaders are able to speak this way.

Chronicling his early life in a social media post, presumably by a former Methodist Boys’ School (MBS) schoolmate, Dr Noor Hisham clearly learnt well in school.

“All his participation and activities in school had helped him to be independent, self-sufficient, resourceful, mature in engagement with others and to have good communication skills, ” read the post.

The perception outside Malaysia is that we have done well in combating the killer disease.

Every evening, editors of the Asia News Network from 23 countries share updates on the virus, and many of them have expressed their admiration for how Malaysia has tackled the situation.

In Indonesia, social media is ablaze with heated discussions and comparisons made to Malaysia’s management of the crisis.

While the curve has yet to flatten, recovery numbers have gone up and the number of new cases has stabilised, although we’re still not out of the woods.

Last week, the China Global TV Network (CGTN), which broadcasts to the world in Chinese and English, cited Dr Noor Hisham as among the “top doctors” in the world for his approach in handling the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the report from CGTN, Dr Noor Hisham is recognised as one of three leading doctors in the fight to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus, along with the US’ infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, and New Zealand’s director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield.

The three have been lauded over the weeks for being “calm, clear and trustable” sources of information and facts for their countrymen during the pandemic.

Dr Noor Hisham, who turns 57 in three days’ time, has been the Health director-general since 2013. He has been dubbed a “trusted face” by Malaysians, thanks to his reliance on facts and figures in making decisions to update the public on the virus via his social media platforms.

CGTN said his “low-key image and unassuming air” contributed to Dr Noor Hisham’s appeal, while Bloomfield described him as the quintessential civil servant.

This writer sent Dr Noor Hisham a text message to congratulate him on the recognition accorded to him. He must have received a string of similar messages of commendation.

But he replied swiftly, even though it was dinner time, and again, in the standard and ever-humble tone of downplaying his relevance and prioritising saving lives.

As a Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia product, I, together with my fellow alumni, am enormously proud of him, and the officials from the university have been talking endlessly about him, especially as the National University of Malaysia turns 50 next month.

Dr Noor Hisham received his Doctor of Medicine in 1988 and the Master’s in Surgery in 1994, both from UKM.

He went on to specialise in endocrine surgery and did his training in various universities in Adelaide and Sydney, Australia. His articles have been published in many local and international journals and he has written textbook chapters on endocrine surgery.

That is the factual sheet of his professional resume. Beyond that, he has, prudently, not divulged details of his private life, which have been widely circulated in social media.

When Dr Noor Hisham was asked about the recognition given by CGTN, his answer was that it was an honour for Malaysia and thanked all the government agencies.

Always shunning the limelight, the former Boy Scout and school champion athlete remains a team player. Although he was born in Sepang, he studied and grew up in KL.

No stranger to challenges and difficulties, it’s fair to say Dr Noor Hisham hasn’t taken a day off since the outbreak of the virus, with back-to-back meetings and sometimes, hand-over functions that require his attendance.

He has been updating the media and public on social media late into the night, well past normal working hours.

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin deserves credit for steadfastly making the right calls, especially when a few ministers have faltered in making rightful, health-driven decisions.

Whether it’s barber shops, hair salons or Ramadan bazaars, he has put his foot down firmly on such luxuries at this time. Let’s give credit where it’s due, without the political bias to score points.

But as UKM pays tribute to our alumnus and the achievements of the university, I must take this occasion to single out Dr Noor Hisham in the roll call for our Golden Jubilee milestone.

Experts shed light on virus origin

Going out safely: People wearing face masks seen on the East Lake after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. — Reuters

CHINA bashing is continuing even as the world struggles to fight the killer Covid-19 virus. In fact, the blame game has intensified, fuelled by some western politicians and the media.

It’s not a good time for Asians, especially ethnic Chinese, to be in Western countries as there have been reported cases of racial abuse and even assault.

Without doubt, these, are isolated cases as the majority of people are reasonable but such incidents have made many Chinese people in these countries feel uneasy and unsafe.

Amid all these, a very important report went almost unnoticed last week. Perhaps most journalists were preoccupied with headline-grabbing news of Covid-19 deaths and lockdown violators.

The report, which has been widely discussed in the scientific community, was carried by some newspapers but CNN and BBC did not find it interesting enough or perhaps it did not fit into their narrative.

Well, for the first time, experts from Britain and Germany have mapped the evolutionary path of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 and determined there are currently three versions of it spreading around the world.

In simple English, the viruses are mutating – changing their forms – and these scientists have put them in three forms, or variants, as they prefer to call them. But the bad news is that they are still mutating, and more variants could be added later.

The virus, according to these experts – “is constantly mutating to overcome immune system resistance in different populations.”

According to the findings, these researchers reconstructed the early evolutionary paths of the virus as it spread from the epicentre in Wuhan, China, out to Europe and North America.

By analysing the first 160 complete virus genomes to be sequenced from human patients, scientists found the variant closest to that discovered in bats was largely found in patients from the US and Australia – not Wuhan.

They used data from samples taken from across the world between Dec 24, 2019 and March 4, 2020. They found that the closest type of coronavirus to the one discovered in bats – type A, the original human virus genome – was present in Wuhan, but was not the city’s predominant virus type. The Chinese city was initially the epicentre of the outbreak.

The finding said type A was also found in Americans who had lived in Wuhan, and in other patients diagnosed in the United States and Australia.

However, the report did not elaborate who were the Americans who had lived in Wuhan and how they got infected.

The most common variant found in Wuhan was type B although this appeared not to have travelled much beyond East Asia before mutating, which the researchers said was probably due to some form of resistance to it outside that region.

Type C was the variant found most commonly in Europe based on cases in France, Italy, Sweden and England.

It has not been detected in any patients in mainland China, though it had been found in samples from Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, the study said.

Dr Peter Forster, geneticist and lead author from the University of Cambridge, said: “There are too many rapid mutations to neatly trace a Covid-19 family tree.”

But the researchers concluded that variant A was the root of the outbreak as it was most closely related to the virus found in bats and pangolins. Type B was derived from A, separated by two mutations, while type C was the “daughter” of variant B.

“The Wuhan B-type virus could be immunologically or environmentally adapted to a large section of the East Asian population, ” Forster said.

“It may need to mutate to overcome resistance outside East Asia. We seem to see a slower mutation rate in East Asia than elsewhere, in this initial phase.”

But one thing is for sure. It is not a good time to travel as the virus has been transmitted at an unbelievable speed.

For example, the study reported that one of the earliest introductions of the virus to Italy was found in a Mexican traveller, who was diagnosed on Feb 28, came via the first documented German infection – a person who worked for a company in Munich on Jan 27.

The German contracted the infection from a Chinese colleague in Shanghai, who had recently been visited by her parents from Wuhan. The researchers documented 10 mutations in the viral journey from Wuhan to Mexico.

“Because we have reconstructed the ‘family tree’ (the evolutionary history) of the human virus, we can use this tree to trace infection routes from one human to the next, and thus have a statistical tool to suppress future infection when the virus tries to return, ” Forster said.

The research team has since extended its analysis to 1,001 viral genomes and while it has yet to undergo peer review, the report has indicated that the spread of the virus has increasingly adapted to different populations and therefore the pandemic needs to be taken seriously.

More importantly, this scientific report could help politicians and the media to understand better the cause of the virus, and end their conspiracy blame game.

Food for thought

Vertical farming: Singapore has taken food security so seriously that it has now started modern rooftop farms, like this carpark rooftop vegetable plot at Block 700, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6. – Photos: The Straits Times/ANN

IF there’s a lesson Malaysians must learn from the current Movement Control Order (MCO), it’s that food shouldn’t be taken for granted anymore. While we don’t lack food supplies, the MCO and crowd control rules at supermarkets have made it more difficult for us to get the essentials.

Then, there are many Malaysians, especially the poor, who have lost their jobs or are unable to work because of the MCO and are now struggling to put food on the table.

But as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic and reels from fears of a paucity in food supplies, food security has been given well-deserved fresh attention.

In ordinary times (it’s strange to even describe this way, right?), a little virus wouldn’t even make for idle chatter. Besides, most governments have always given lip service to this subject, anyway.

As a recap, think about this – Singapore, which is almost entirely dependent since it imports over 90% of the food consumed, has emerged tops in 2018 and 2019 in the Global Food Security Index (GFS), which comprised 113 countries.

The GFS assesses people’s ability to attain affordable and quality food to meet their nutritional needs.

This is a country of five million people crammed in a landmass of just 715 square km, but the country knows that money has little value if there’s no food.

In the case of Malaysia, we were ranked 28th in 2019, but that’s a big improvement having been in the 48th spot in 2018. This is the harvest of our commitment in ensuring adequate food stockpile, which also includes the reduction of imports and better diversification of crops.

Food security simply means the availability of safe, sufficient and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life, according to the United Nations’ standards.

Singapore has taken food security so seriously that it has now started modern rooftop and vertical farms, in what it terms “the world’s first low-carbon, water-driven, rotating, vertical farm” for growing vegetables in an urban environment.

Singapore’s vertical farms are said to supply NTUC FairPrice’s 230 grocery retail outlets. – Bloomberg

Those of us old enough to have been around would recall our dig at the late Tan Sri Sanusi Junid in the late 1980s for suggesting planting padi on roof tops when he was Agriculture Minister.

Well, vegetables from Singapore’s vertical farming are said to supply NTUC FairPrice’s 230 grocery retail outlets.

Last month, its Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chui Seng told Singaporeans that it has a few months’ stockpiles and anticipates a break in the chain of of supply from Malaysia.

“Currently, Singapore has more than three months’ worth of carbohydrates like rice and noodles, and more than two months’ worth of stockpiles for proteins and vegetables,” he said, revealing specific figures for the first time.

“Singapore has plans to manage a disruption of supplies from Malaysia through a combination of stockpiling, local production and diversification of overseas sources,” he was quoted.

The post Covid-19 period is an opportunity for fundamental reforms, as the Minister in our Prime Minister’s Department (Economy) Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamad rightly pointed out.

According to a comprehensive paper titled “Achieving Food Security For All Malaysians” by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI), Malaysia is more food secure today, meeting various internationally-accepted criteria, unlike in the past, particularly during the colonial period.

“All major foods are available in sufficient quantities to meet market demand, which should not be equated with human needs. Production has improved for poultry and vegetables, while rice production is supplemented by imports.

“Food access is no longer an issue for most Malaysians, with better processing, transport and storage systems and distribution arrangements, for most major food items,” it said.

But food affordability has remained a very serious issue, and as our economy spirals from our weakening ringgit against the US dollar, food will surely become much more expensive.

It has been reported that our food imports for 2019 has hit almost RM60bil – which is certainly too high for a country with a population of 32 million people.

According to reports, Malaysia’s food import bill ballooned from RM10.5bil in 1998 to RM51.28bil in 2017, while food exports increased from RM6.15bil in 1998 to RM31.84bil in 2017, highlighting a near five-fold leap both ways.

We aren’t in a food security crisis presently, but sadly, Malaysians have become poorer. That’s a fact, even if your employer – government or private sector – has yet to dock your pay.

The sharp drop in fuel prices is bleeding the country. Every US$1 (RM4.3) drop in oil price will result in a whopping RM300mil loss for us. And with prices plummeting to between US$20 (RM86) and US$25 (RM107) per barrel, we are looking at additional losses of between RM11.1bil and RM12.6bil.

This rooftop farm in Singapore apparently can grow up to 25 different varieties of leafy greens.

The bottom line is this – we need to act fast to prevent a food security problem because the current pattern of food imports is not sustainable.

We need to review our food import and distribution system, including Approved Permits and import permits, which seem partial to certain parties. Pricing needs a relook, too.

The KRI findings cited beef, pork and chicken being much higher priced in Malaysia than in Australia.

“One reason for the high prices are the supply oligopolies, as import licenses are only awarded to a handful of importers.

“In 2014, beef exported from India was sold for an average of US$2.90 (RM12.50) per kg, but was much more expensive in Malaysia, at US$7.82 (RM33.70) per kg.

“The higher price of beef compared to the export price from the major source country suggests oligopolistic market power by a few major imports,” it said.

In the report written in 2019 by Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Tan Zhai Gen and Jarud Romadan Khalidi, four policy recommendations were listed for consideration, including Malaysia’s commitment to producing enough rice for its people, embracing different policy options to beef up national food security and raise the quality of life for farmers.

A wide-ranging food security policy should be installed, so we have access to healthy and diverse diets. Sewing it all up is the need for food safety to gain greater policy consideration.

Basically, there can’t be a better time for us to back food producers and learn from the Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Thais and the Dutch, given their ecosystem, value chain and delivery system.

More food production is about modern farming and aqua-culture methods with sound R&D.

We must stop wasting time trying to eliminate the middlemen, an unending fixation of many policy makers. However, studies indicate that government-run agencies are not practical with the multi-layer bureaucracy and office hours structure.

Middlemen have become a part of the ecosystem as they also support fishermen and farmers with loans and tools for their work, believes Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia lecturer Madeline Berma, according to a news report.

Most armchair critics, in a simplistic and prejudiced way, prefer looking at middlemen in only black and white terms.

We must examine our way of life because we spend so much on food yet see so much of it go to waste.

According to the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp), the wasted food can easily fill up 16 Twin Towers.

Here’s another fact: we dump about 16,688 tonnes of food per day, an amount that can easily feed around 2.2 million people, three times a day.

This is a good time for all of us to reflect on our food production, consumption pattern and food security index in the most serious way we ever have.

Dear YB: Enough with the photo ops, walk the MCO talk

I AM not sure if our Malaysian leaders, especially politicians, are aware that their pictures posted on social media are being watched closely – or rather, scrutinised.

Besides their opponents, who are spending much of their free time finding fault and ways to ridicule them, ordinary Malaysians are also following closely what their elected representatives are doing.

You can tell from the Facebook and Instagram posts whether they have been uploaded by their media assistants or by they themselves. If they are deadpan and serious, in an “officialdom” manner, we know it’s the work of the media handlers.

It’s not that they are not creative, but no one wants to run foul, so they rather stick to the same, safe formula. After all, as with most bosses, they know that they won’t be credited when their work is good but are the immediate fall guy with just one mistake.

The more candid posts, with a few grammar mistakes thrown in, are the real ones that come direct from the person crafting these posts.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin probably has the best posts with a good mix, as he shares pictures of his personal life, work and even his current fashion choice, with his followers.

He is a natural, and that is perhaps because he was briefly a journalist and TV commentator, with a trained eye for newsworthiness.

So, it’s not just pictures of him at seemingly boring meetings, poring through documents with equally boring looking officials, or sitting around with constituents in villages.

After a while, these pictures become a blind spot, an advertising term which basically means that the audience doesn’t really bother anymore. In short, who cares?

But in the present movement control order (MCO) period, Malaysians are putting our ministers and Members of Parliament under the microscope.

Well, most of us are bored and restless, and are glued to our handphones or computers. We have too much time.

Many of us have noticed that some leaders are obviously not practising what they are supposed to be doing.

They have actually set bad examples, as they continue with what they have always been doing, unwittingly, as a habit. Their officials are not alerting them to this, or are too subservient to tell their bosses off.

One minister has practically ignored social distancing, with most of his officials still seated closely next to each other in pictures.

Members of the media are no better – they are seen huddling around him, putting their microphones up close to him, and exposing themselves to him – remember, droplet transmission is a factor in the Covid-19 outbreak. What social distancing?

It is also obvious that this minister doesn’t like wearing masks, as evident from the many pictures with him “unmasked”.

There is one minister who posed for a photograph after a meeting with others. Some were wearing masks and some weren’t, and at least one person shouldn’t even have been there.

Sure, taking the picture may have merely took a minute, but this is still unacceptable simply because the minister’s job includes promoting social distancing.

Then there are one or two others who have this inane habit of still wanting an entourage of officials to greet them, in a feudalistic manner, at functions and, of course, at their press conferences.

There has been a backlash recently against ministers for arranging unnecessary events merely to show they are working or just for the media attention – all at the expense of the frontliners who rather be working then being mere photo props.

The reality is this – they don’t need any of these functions. The “stay at home” call also covers ministers.

The only one who should talking to the media at conferences are Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, and Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah.

The rest can get to the media through Zoom, FaceTime or just via a social media post.

At a time when most of us are discouraged from physically collecting documents or food from deliverers, we still see pictures of MPs in the standard food handover functions.

If in the days before Covid-19, we kept seeing our Yang Berhormat riding their kapcai in villages without their helmets, we hope that in the post-MCO period, especially during the Hari Raya period, they at least put on face masks.

The reality is that wearing face masks will be the “new normal” from now in Malaysia, and so will the “Salam Malaysia” greeting (as opposed to handshakes).

The last thing we need is to let our guard down after all our MCO efforts.