Author Archives: wcw

Call of the wild in Uganda

The writer saw a lioness so up close he could see her ears twitch, a rare encounter even for the local guide. – Photos: WONG CHUN WAI

It wasn’t part of the plan. We were merely supposed to sit in a safari jeep and cruise on a designated path through the sprawling Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

My group of Malaysian travellers were promised the abundant sights of hippopotamus, antelopes, kob, chimpanzees, buffaloes, elephants and baboons.

The ranger said that if we were lucky, we might even see tree-climbing lions, but conceded that chances were slim. Understandably, he didn’t want to raise our expectations.

This is, after all, Uganda, not Kenya or Tanzania where the safari is much bigger and has more animals. Basically, Uganda is always under the radar when it comes to African safari game park. But we certainly got more than we bargained for.

My travelling companion, Rong, must have super bionic eyes. While travelling on the dusty trail, with most of us drowsy in the afternoon heat, he suddenly asked the ranger to stop the vehicle. He thought he’d seen a lion in the distance.

There’s nothing like seeing elephants in all their majesty in the wild.

None of us saw anything. But thanks to technology, I could snap a picture using my mobile phone. When I enlarged the picture, we could clearly see the head of a lioness, eyeing an unsuspecting animal close by. She was well camouflaged amidst the thick scrub and long grass.

We urged our ranger to drive down the slope and head towards that direction.

We were in luck, because after driving a short distance, we chanced upon the female lion. Her “meal” looked like a warthog, and it was still fresh meat.

There were no vultures or hyenas to pick on the leftovers yet. The ranger speculated that she was pregnant, trying to sound authoritative and knowledgeable, but we were thrilled out of our minds to bother listening.

The encounter was just too close and too spectacular. We could see her breathing heavily as her ears twitched to our presence, and of course, we saw her large, vigilant eyes.

She wasn’t perturbed as she sensed she wasn’t being threatened, and it helped, too, that she had just eaten.

She didn’t look intimidating, but we knew better than to push our luck. We were so close to her that we didn’t even need zoom lenses to capture this magical moment. Our handphones were good enough to take pictures and videos with.

She was a real beauty, and we instantly understood why lions are the symbols for power, aggression and might. However, the big cat displayed no intimidation tactics or growls of threat, and merely gazed at us.

The elegant kob at the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

After being glued to the spot for a good 25 minutes, we decided it was time to leave this beautiful animal before we test her patience with our intrusion into her territory.

As we excitedly compared pictures and patted ourselves on the back, we had to tell the equally excited ranger to keep his hands on the wheel. He had earned his bragging rights, as he quickly called the other rangers to tell them what he had just seen. We were sure other vehicles would be headed in our direction.

But there was more excitement in this part of Uganda, although the 1,978sq km park is lesser known than others. The park extends from Lake George in the north-east, to Lake Edward in the south-west and includes the Kazinga Channel, which connects the two great lakes.

It’s home to 95 mammal and more than 500 bird species, and the 32-km long Kazinga Channel is the habitat to the world’s largest concentration of hippos and many Nile crocodiles, which are easily spotted along the banks.

One of the most memorable sights is the herds of elephants at the Kazinga Channel.

I took a two-hour boat ride along the edge of the channel and saw some of the most amazing and incredible scenes I have ever witnessed in my life.

I saw the giant Nile monitor lizard, said to be one of the biggest lizards, along with a wealth of bird life. The rangers patiently pointed out the different species of the feathered creatures, telling us about their unique calls. These animals were in abundance along the river.

While Queen Elizabeth Park isn’t in the same league as Masai Mara in Kenya, or the Serengeti in Tanzania, it’s home to about 2,500 elephants, 5,000 hippos and more than 10,000 buffaloes.

According to writer Matthias Mugisha, the area was first declared a game reserve in 1906, to prevent unregulated hunting, but was later gazetted as a National Park in 1952.

“Animal species such as chimpanzees and more than 600 species of birds compose a section of the large animal varieties in the park.

“Nowhere in the country can one find a park dotted with numerous craters than this park,” he wrote.

The hippopotamus is one of the most aggressive creatures in the world and is often regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.

Driving past the open fields, on the road to the channel, I lost count of the number of huge elephants we saw, their huge and mighty tusks sadly still a source of poaching.

Then, there were the olive baboons. Unsurprisingly, we were advised to keep our windows shut when we met them.

There’s no way visitors to this place could ever miss them. They were walking in groups along the stretch of road heading to the park, even coming close to the lodges where tourists stay.

They were big and they looked mean, and no one forgets their glare! Seen in packs like that, they reminded me of the nastier-looking extras from the Planet of the Apes series of movies. We were rightfully advised not to feed or be friendly with them. While they may resemble humans, they’re as wild as they come.

“Named for their green-grey coats, Olive baboons (Papio anubis) are among the most wide-ranging of the Old World monkeys, found in a strip of 25 African countries that stretch along or near the equator, nearly coast to coast.

“They can live in groups of 15 to 150, and are made up mostly of females and their young. Over a half mile stretch of road, we probably encountered at least 80 or so; most didn’t seem as excited to see us as we were to see them, but quite a few played along, posing for photos before disappearing into the forest or, at the very least, like this trio, sitting and moping in the slight but steady rain,” according to the Piran CafĂ© site.

The visit to Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Park was supposed to be the sideshow to our main event – seeing mountain gorillas at the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where we tracked up the dense, volcanic mountains and its rough terrain to reach these gentle giants. This is the home of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population.

But our chance encounter with the lion, which was nothing short of up close and personal, was equally exciting and memorable.

Now, I can truly say, in the jungles, I hear the lions sleep tonight.

Paving the way ahead

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said many times, and in different ways, too, so the message is clear and consistent – Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will be his successor and there should be no doubt of this.

But for whatever reasons, the Prime Minister is constantly grilled about this by the media. Will the PKR president succeed him as Prime Minister, and when will the world’s oldest prime minister step down? This is the regular line of questioning.

It’s incredible that he has never lost his cool answering these two questions, and neither has he directed his press officers to tell the media not to bring the subject up.

So the press keeps bringing it up, and, for even stranger reasons, these repeated news reports still grab an audience.

Perhaps, many aren’t prepared to whole-heartedly embrace politicians’ sales pitches, because they often lack value in truth. There is also the little detail of the two men’s past record of bitter acrimony that still haunts their most loyal supporters.

The only thing that brought them together was their determination to end Barisan Nasional’s 60-year stranglehold, to topple Datuk Seri Najib Razak and haul him and Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor to court to face multiple charges of corruption and money laundering.

It’s no secret that the component parties made a written pact that Dr Mahathir would be PM following the May 2018 general election victory, and that Anwar would eventually take over. The only thing that wasn’t put in black and white was the time frame leading to the hand-over.

Anwar, the PKR leader with no Cabinet post, has been patient, and has kept repeating the near-obligatory line, “Dr Mahathir must be given the latitude and space”. The truth is, he has little choice but to remain the PM-in-waiting.

The speculation – resulting in perceived uncertainties – is also due to the open differences between Anwar and Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, his deputy in PKR.

But last week, Dr Mahathir Mohamad said in clear terms that he would step down as premier after two years to make way for Anwar, although in a subsequent interview, he added that it could be three years.

Dr Mahathir said that anyone who takes over from him isn’t required to adhere to his instructions or follow his example.

“He is free to do what he thinks is best as prime minister. I have no say on what happens after. My job is to prepare the country as much as possible,” he said in a special interview in conjunction with the first anniversary of the Pakatan administration on Wednesday.

Of course, those aligned to Anwar – who was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998 by Dr Mahathir and then jailed – are insistent he take over the reins in a year.

However, there is no time frame, and curiously, this is all turning into Anwar’s advantage that Dr Mahathir be allowed to fix the many economic headaches battering the country.

Besides the eye-watering amount of money looted from the coffers, the country is facing a multi-prong attack of falling commodity prices, a shrinking ringgit, poor consumer sentiment, the outflow of funds and a weak stock market.

Adding to his plate, Dr Mahathir is forced to grapple with the inexperience, and perhaps, incompetence of some of his ministers, a mutinous civil service and a security force that has kept supporting the opposition in a series of by-elections.

If that isn’t enough, Umno and PAS have successfully played up the purported loss of Malay supremacy to the DAP – a euphemism for the Chinese – when ironically, it was the Malay leaders who stole from government bodies.

Billions of ringgit have gone missing from the Federal Land Development Authority and Lem-baga Tabung Haji in what can only be described as “jaw dropping losses”.

Those entrusted with safeguarding these assets, unfortunately, squandered them despite professing to protect the Malay race and Islam.

With a line-up of greenhorn Cabinet members, Dr Mahathir is the most likely person to fix these problems. There is the consensus that he is the only one who can reign royalty in and openly oppose them. The rest of us ordinary Malaysians may face sedition charges for posting disparaging remarks on social media.

A few days ago, Dr Mahathir reiterated that he would not see out a full term and will step aside after fixing problems his PH coalition claims it inherited after forming the federal government.

PM Mahathir, who turns 94 in two months, told a conference with the foreign media: “We will make most of the corrections within a period of two years, and after that, I think the others will have less problems to face.”

When pressed on whether he meant two years in power or from now, he replied: “I don’t know whether it is three years or two years, but I am an interim prime minister.”

As much as many Malaysians want Dr Mahathir to continue as PM, given his spike in popularity compared to his previous run as PM, we need to be realistic. Even he is realistic.

He turns 95 next year, and he’s only human. So he is subject to the same biological and ageing processes as any one of us, although at 94 now, he can put many 49-year-olds to shame.

If he completes the full five-year term, he will be 98 years old, and I don’t think anyone in his right mind expects him to serve the full five years, or even four years.

Next year is Malaysia’s turn to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, where the world’s most powerful leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese premier Xi Jinping, will attend the historic meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Dr Mahathir will play host, and certainly, we expect him to want to take centre stage at this global event with these giant figures and revel in the moment. It will be decades before KL has another chance to welcome this economic showpiece, which takes place in November this time around.

Many events are lined up for the run-up to the Apec summit, and 2020 is certainly a year to galvanise the country as it’s also Visit Malaysia Year.

The only nagging question is how much has been done to prepare ourselves for the Big Show. It’s also one befitting Dr Mahathir, as he prepares himself to pass the baton to Anwar.

Dr Mahathir has said that he will not reshuffle the Cabinet. He should have though, as he would be able to better use the expertise, talents and skills of his ministers. Some are not cut out for certain portfolios, because of their personalities, lack of social and linguistic skills, and even interest.

The Cabinet was hastily cobbled together, and surely a year later, it has become obvious to Malaysians who the performers and non-performers are. We may be wrong in our evaluations, but politics is all about perception.

The surveys so far conducted are based on public sentiment, even if many members of society lack the full details of the back stories.

In any company, the probation period for a new employee is anywhere between three and six months, but politicians seem to have special rules. After all, this is the only profession where no experience or proof of education is required. The public gets arrested and jailed for using fake qualifications, but that conveniently doesn’t apply to ministers.

Every company has a succession plan where potential candidates are named to take over a position, and if that doesn’t pan out, the company then looks for one, even if that means turning to head-hunters.

The risk management team reports the implications of not having clear lines of leadership.

But in Malaysia, we have a 94-year-old leader, with a mixed line up ministers, some would say, motley and mismatched, right down to a 26-year-old serving his first term as MP.

And the designated successor has no Cabinet post or key role in the federal government. In Malaysia, the strangest things can be made to make sense.

Another brick in the wall

Education is that realm where wrongs are set right and learning thrives, yet, right off the bat, the new matriculation intake has found itself in murky waters.

SOME leaders in our federal and state governments, now or then, seem to be guilty of this habit – announcing decisions before studying the implications of their policies.

So it was no surprise that after the Education Ministry announced the controversial changes to the matriculation programme, a row erupted, and soon, the Prime Minister had to weigh in on the debate.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he would address the quota system issue of the pre-university matriculation programme intake.

When asked for his comments on whether the quota system would be abolished, he said: “We will study the problem.”

Once again, it looks like the 93-year-old leader must step in to clean up another mess before things start to stink.

The controversy exploded when the Cabinet decided to increase the number of students entering the matriculation programme from 25,000 to 40,000 while maintaining the 90% quota for bumiputra students.

The matriculation programme was originally aimed at encouraging bumiputra students to pursue studies in science.

The highly sought-after programme – due to its cost-effectiveness – is equivalent to a one- or two-year pre-university course, and enables students to pursue a degree upon successfuly completing the programme. Enrollees only need to pay a registration fee and the rest is borne by the government.

However, the concern now is that by doubling the matriculation intake, it will affect the seats available to those vying for places in public universities via the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) route.

During my time, in the 1980s, when I was sitting for the then Higher School Certificate (HSC), the matriculation programme had already been launched. At present, STPM and matriculation students number about 43,000 and 25,000 respectively.

No rational or fair person will begrudge aid provided to students who need a helping hand, let’s be clear.

But I am not sure if the ministry has given thought to the fact that we may have a surplus of matriculation students – about 60% – at the expense of their STPM counterparts.

Let’s give the ministry the benefit of doubt that they surely would have, given the many experienced experts there, but no narratives have been forthcoming to explain anything to parents and students, especially those preparing for their STPM exams this year.

If the government plans to double university intake, have backup plans been installed to accommodate the sudden surge in science students into our financially-strapped universities?

While non-scholarship students in public universities must pay their own fees, matriculation students not only get free education, but are given allowances, too.

Public universities are already cutting down on contract academic staff as fundraising programmes are being carried out.

Unemployment is underscored by the huge number of jobless graduates, whose changing fortunes have found them unemployed in a soft market. In some cases, their weak language and social skills put them at a disadvantage.

As the intake increases, other relevant infrastructure, like hostels, laboratories and teaching staff, won’t multiply overnight, as MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong rightly pointed out.

“How will the ministry ensure quality in matriculation education? And the suggestion of getting teachers from teachers’ training colleges to teach in matriculation is illogical because their syllabus is totally different,” he said.

The new matriculation policy has also taken the race-based programme to another level and goes against the aspiration of being an inclusive New Malaysia.

DAP leader Dr P. Ramasamy has rightly said the increased quota for bumiputra by the government was spurred by fears of a backlash from sections of the Malay-Muslim community. This is what happens when political expediency and interest come into play.

The former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science lecturer said with the revised quota, the bumiputra allocation will increase the number of students from 22,500 to 36,000.

He said, in comparison, the number of non-Malays will increase by only 1,500 students, beyond the current 2,500.

“I’m taken aback by the Cabinet’s decision. We have failed to move forward. It appears as though the Cabinet was not prepared to take a bold decision in increasing the intake of non-Malay students, particularly Indians.”

Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik, in defending the new policy, said all students deserve a “better opportunity” when they apply for matriculation placement, adding that “the bumiputras will still enjoy their 90% quota”.

Dr Maszlee reportedly said the increased intake for matriculation students was based on a Cabinet decision to get more students into tertiary education and to accord all races equal opportunity.

He also said the Cabinet had instructed his ministry to discuss with the Finance Ministry the government’s burden in bearing the cost of the increased number of matriculation places.

This looks like another case of putting the cart before the horse. Announce first and work out the maths later.

Instead of emphasising need-based programmes, the government has, instead, strengthened a race-based system.

As a student at university, I was often queried by my well-intentioned Malay varsity mates about which scholarship I had obtained. I jokingly told them it was FAMA – father and mother.

I’ve always been grateful for having secured a place in a local university, particularly since there were only five then – and certainly no private universities – and that gratitude has only grown since that degree helped change my life.

And that conveniently brings me to my point: Let’s not deny our children, regardless of their race, a place in our universities, which are funded by multi-ethnic tax payers.

If parents are financially sound, no prayers would be needed for students to earn slots in our public institutions of higher learning, it’s that simple.

It’s time for Penang to reinvent itself

Looking ahead: An aerial view of Penang’s Free Industrial Zone. Penang is banking on land reclamation to the south of the island to help fund the state’s economic development.

ALMOST three decades ago, my then news editor Nizam Mohamad tried to convince me to work in Kuala Lumpur instead of remaining content in Penang, but like most Penangites, I enjoyed the slower pace of life on the island.

The food was good, the beach was marvellous, and I could be with my sweetheart, now my wife. I had my friends, who were my schoolmates, and my family members.

Finally, when the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit was held in KL in 1990, Nizam asked me to “help out with the coverage”.

When I reported for duty, he handed me my transfer letter on the spot. It was as simple as that, and I remember he told me that “you would go nowhere if you remain in Penang”.

For decades, skills migration and brain drain, and the lack of high-quality job opportunities, has been Penang’s Achilles heel.

Shoe designer Datuk Jimmy Choo wouldn’t have become a world icon had he remained in George Town. The same fate could have befallen sports personalities Datuk Lee Chong Wei and Datuk Nicol David had they, too, not moved to KL.

Munich-based Datuk Ooi Chean See would have no renowned orchestra to conduct if she were still in Penang, and Hong Kong-based fund manager, Datuk Seri Cheah Cheng Hye, wouldn’t be a billionaire had he stayed put in the state.

Nizam was right, and I am thankful for his foresight. Like many of my fellow islanders, our careers have moved up and onwards since moving to the nation’s capital, given its greater opportunities.

Penangites, many of whom now work outside the state, generally also lack properties in the state because we no longer live there. The rental yield simply doesn’t make business sense for investment.

The truth is, Penang is stagnating and hasn’t been able to reinvent itself. The state remains dependent on the electrical and electronics (E&E) sector. Putting it more accurately, with a GDP of RM80bil, half of Penang’s economy is reliant on this sector with the other half on tourism and the services industry.

Despite having achieved a high growth rate of 11% per annum between 1970 and 2008, growing from RM790mil in 1970 to RM49bil in 2008, GDP growth rate has slowed down to 5% for the past 10 years.

The past decade also saw GDP per capita easing off to 4% per annum, and with inflation at 3% per annum, the standard of living for Penangites has been on the decline, relative to the past four decades.

Growing up on the island, where I spent much time at the Batu Ferringhi beaches, we all know why it’s now hard for Penang to compete against the likes of Bali, Phuket and Koh Lipe as its beaches and water have simply lost their lustre.

Penang can no longer call itself the “The Pearl Of The Orient” or even “Penang Leads”, a tagline locals revelled in during the era of then Chief Minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.

The state is losing ground in tourism, especially with it having not invested sufficiently in this sector, a situation compounded by how cities around the world are reinventing themselves.

In the E&E sector, we are trapped between China and Vietnam, two fast-moving low-cost locations, while Singapore and Taiwan portray highly skilled research and design centres. Basically, we’ve lost out on both ends.

More discouraging is how Penang, especially the island side with its premium value, has run out of land for safe development, open spaces and infrastructure.

Much of the state’s people are unaware that almost 40% of Penang’s land is classified as Class III or above. This classification means that the terrain is sloped at more than 25 degrees, measured from a horizontal plane.

These are the foliaged hilly and sloppy terrains subjected to undue pressure from hillside developments. Recent catastrophes of landslides, floods and fatalities remain etched in our minds.

It has become increasingly difficult to buy homes on the island, and it’s common knowledge how rich Singaporeans have snapped up the pre-war homes in heritage sites there for a song.

As land becomes scarcer, the manufacturing and services sector will not be able to grow and will remain stunted.

That could all change soon with the state and federal governments now under the rule of the same political coalition. The state needs to accelerate its inevitable transformation which will fundamentally change the way Penangites live and work, and it needs to embrace digital economy, globalisation and urbanisation. To put it succinctly, Penang must brand itself a Smart City.

In other countries, there is always a second city – Beijing and Shanghai, Sydney and Melbourne, Hanoi and Ho Chin Minh, New York and Los Angeles. However, George Town has never been able to capture the second city status (partnering KL), and it must now compete with Johor Baru for that prestigious identity. Penang has severely lagged.

Understandably, most Penangites are averse to change. Putting up buildings doesn’t mean development, and besides, no one comes to Penang to see skyscrapers. The quality of life is important, and it’s fortunate that Penang has a vibrant civil society.

The non-governmental organisations are alert and outspoken, and that’s what a mature democracy should be like – keeping a close eye on politicians.

But Penang can’t remain stagnant, so it needs land. All around the world, land reclamation is a norm. Just look at Singapore and Hong Kong. Manhattan wouldn’t exist if New York didn’t add land to it. And if Johor hadn’t done the same, Singaporeans can see Johoreans from their flats, as they reclaim without any debates.

“Location, location, location” is the mantra of land developers. The plan to create three man-made islands, totalling 1,821ha (4,500 acres) under the Penang South Reclamation Scheme (PSR) is proof of heading in the right direction. The RM70bil deal involves the construction of the RM9bil rail transit (LRT) line, the RM9.6bil Pan Island Link 1 (PIL1) and other supporting infrastructure projects under the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

Land may be in abundance on the mainland, but the island is the preferred choice, because in terms of value, it has always fetched higher prices. Having the three islands next to the Bayan Lepas Industrial Zone, the Penang International Airport and the Second Penang Bridge is the right thing to do.

Malaysia’s E&E industry is centred in Bayan Lepas, contributing RM120bil in exports, and these islands will help boost this crucial sector further, and encourage Penang to reinvent itself as a digital economy.

A properly planned transport link is long overdue. For years, I have made it a point to return to Penang for the reunion dinner days ahead of Chinese New Year, simply because I can no longer handle the stress of traffic jams on the island.

The final straw was when a jaga kereta boy demanded RM10 for my car, which was parked near Kek Lok Si temple where my wife used to live, because “you have a KL number plate” and “you are not a Penangite”.

Although Penang was the first state in Malaya to introduce a tram system (in the 1880s), the streets there are simply too narrow. So, while it sounds good in theory, it’s just not practical.

Going above the streets – like what modern rails do – is the right thing, and such an “elevated” move will remove the chaos each time it rains and transforms George Town into a huge canal.

The bottom line is, the E&E sector is stagnant, tourism earnings have reduced, Penang isn’t on the global business map, traffic congestion is horrendous, housing on the island is unsustainable and worse, the best brains will not come to Penang for career advancement.

You can have investments, but it doesn’t make sense if the best talents are not attracted to work in the state. There is only so much char koay teow one can eat in Penang.

It’s no good for Penang to be a pick for expatriate retirees. Instead, we need it to be a choice for the workforce, both Malaysian and foreign, from the knowledge economy, supporting services, manufacturing and renewed tourism industries. Penang must move up the value chain to reclaim its lost stature of “Penang Leads”.

Try a little kindness

HATE, intimidation, abuse, domestic violence, body shaming, racist chants, peer pressure, religious coercion, disrespectful remarks from bosses, sexual harassment and indifference.

Give it any name, but it’s still bullying in some form or the other. It has become more prevalent and amplified now because of social media, where the reach is greater.

Over the last few weeks, we have seen how there is no room for religious and racial extremism. In Sri Lanka, three brothers have been accused of masterminding the series of bomb blasts which killed over 250 people on Easter Sunday.

Authorities there have blamed a local Islamist group for the appalling and barbaric act of terrorism.

Then, there was the rampage by a white supremacist against Muslims who were performing their Friday prayers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, which saw 50 people senselessly gunned down.

These are hate crimes committed by deranged mental cases who likely think they are doing so to protect their religion and race. However, no religion teaches their followers to murder, and certainly, our powerful and omnipresent Creator doesn’t need our protection.

The Kindness Movement certainly resonates louder today as the #StandTogether campaign, initiated by youth portal R.AGE and property developer SP Setia. The climax of the campaign this coming Saturday, the Kindness Concert, aims to be a rallying call for Malaysians to thwart hate and intolerance and celebrate kindness.

Nevertheless, everyone is practical and well-aware that efforts to promote kindness begin with baby steps. The bullying and killing will continue, but what we’d like to at least do is share the value of kindness and love, so we may do whatever we can to always carry those thoughts in our hearts and minds. As American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr once said, “hate begets hate, and violence begets violence”.

The only way to end the cycle of hate in this world is through love and kindness. As preachy as it may sound, we all need to play our little parts.

As a supporter of this initiative, I have visited schools across the nation whenever my schedule has permitted, to join captains of industries and celebrities to tell the younger generation that it’s simply not cool to be bullies.

It’s unacceptable to indulge in body shaming or to call schoolmates names. We come in all shapes, sizes and colours. It doesn’t matter if you are fat, thin, short, lanky, black, white, yellow or embrace different religions even.

That’s exactly how God works in mysterious ways, by making us different but surely God wants us to be equal. What matters most, though, is not what’s on the outside of us, but what’s inside. Our hearts and minds matter more than our looks, skin colour or even how we dress.

Almost all the schools we went to said they are increasingly worried about cyberbullying and spite-filled online content, which can be even more destructive than physical bullying.

It follows victims everywhere and torments them 24/7. In fact, they have led to lives destroyed and even lost, because victims aren’t able to cope with these often viral messages, which seem to live eternally in the digital world.

When we talk about bullies, we tend to picture school-going teen-agers, but they are present in the corporate, political and entertainment circles, too.

Fake news, most of which is libellous and defamatory, seems to be particularly attractive. Many of us are guilty of sharing these messages with little thought given to the feelings of the affected and the damage it causes them.

It’s easy to accuse someone with spicy and juicy details, but these claims are often never substantiated with evidence. It’s done with malice, to shame these high-profile personalities, or to put them down and to squeeze a settlement out of them.

Politicians, given the nature of their work, have thicker skins. Most handle criticism and accusations well, although there are leaders – who spent their entire careers as opposition figures – who have become intolerant towards the slightest difference. How ironic, since, subconsciously, some have turned into bullies.

But realising the power of lawmakers – especially the younger ones – and celebrities, R.AGE drew these public figures in, along with their army of followers, to join in stamping out bullying. Over 20 Members of Parliament, including Nurul Izzah Anwar, Dr Mazlee Malik, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, Hannah Yeoh, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Khairy Jamaluddin have pledged their support for the campaign.

Others, like Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong, wore the campaign badge in Parliament and proudly posted it on social media.

Kudos must also go to the Education Ministry for stepping up its efforts to tackle cyberbullying among students, having given full support to the #StandTogether National Kindness Week campaign. Ultimately, though, they can’t do it alone.

All stakeholders, especially parents and teachers, must work together to stop this culture of hate and negativity – from top politicians to every citizen.

Bullying doesn’t only occur in local schools, either. Just last week, a 15-year-old Malaysian student at the International School of Kuala Lumpur ended up in hospital after he was bashed up by a schoolmate whose father works in the US Embassy here.

In other cases, students have found themselves ostracised by envious schoolmates for being high achievers.

This is where schools – in their capacity as educators – need to instil kindness and respect.

Our National Kindness Week movement in Malaysia has been so inspiring it was cited at the United Nations General Assembly last year as an example of efforts to curb violence against children.

People think that we live in a trying world, so we should toughen up our children. They are born happy, but we change them to fit into this ragged world we’ve created.

But instead of conditioning our kids, we should heal the world and make it a better place so they can grow up happy instead.

Come join us on May 4 at our Kindness Concert, where Malaysians, regardless of race, creed or religion, will stand up to hate and intolerance by celebrating love and kindness.

Top performers and celebrities like Kyoto Protocol, Harith Iskander, Lisa Surihani, Jinnyboy, Arwind Kumar, Luqman Podolski, Sharifah Amani, Chef Wan and many more will be there to lend their voices to kindness.

The event will be held at the Setia City Convention Centre 2 in Shah Alam from 4pm till 7.30pm.

The #StandTogether 2019 campaign has already drawn nearly 9,000 participants, while over 7,000 people took up the five-day Kindness Challenge on WhatsApp, and over 1,600 teachers and students across the country trained to become “Kindness Ambassadors” in their schools. Another 1,500 will be trained in June and July, with 40 school projects funded by R.AGE and SP Setia.

Enough arm chair criticism, treading the moral high ground and suggesting what should be done. If there ever was an opportunity to walk the talk, this would be it. Let’s show the world what true Malaysian kindness is all about.

Video killed the radio star

Acquired taste: The androgynous boys of BTS, with their blonde, orange, blue and green hair, are just not registering with the writer.

YOU must be from another planet if you have never heard of K-pop group BTS. They are the biggest boy band in the world right now and have even been compared to The Beatles. Yes, the Fab Four themselves.

And here’s my confession – until two weeks ago, I had never even heard of their existence. It’s shameful, really.

For me, this South Korean group had to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for them to get my attention. But in no time at all, I found myself reading up on them and watching their videos on YouTube, to be clued in on what they’re all about.

BTS won the 2019 TIME 100 reader poll, marking the second year in a row the seven-piece band has claimed prominence.

It’s an amazing feat, especially since we only have fugitive Jho Low to keep us in the gaze of an international audience.

This group apparently has 19 million followers on Twitter, and BTS, which stands for “Beyond The Scene”, was also named one of TIME’s Most Influential People on the Internet in 2017 and 2018.

More incredibly, BTS shot to No 1 on the Billboard Artist 100 chart and is tipped to make K-pop history by topping both the US and UK charts with its latest album, Map of the Soul: Persona.

Now that I’ve spilled the beans, it’s time to apologise to their die-hard fans. I’ve tried my best to fall in love with them – I have watched their videos several times, but I just don’t get it.

At least Psy’s Gangnam Style, which took the world by storm a few years ago, was catchy and understandably became an Internet-breaking global sensation. That adorably plump boy had something different. But these boys, with their blonde, orange, blue and green hair aren’t registering with me.

My young friends, who are fanatical about BTS and other K-pop groups, are worried for me. I am worried for myself too. Songs from their Love Yourself series of albums haven’t touched my soul at all, I’m afraid.

I must have a problem because the group’s new album, with the lead track Boy with Luv, has become the fastest YouTube video to ever hit 100 million views – reaching the incredible figure in just 36 hours.

I am concerned that, like many people in the older age group, I can only remember the good old times, and what I choose to remember.

That, of course, includes my taste in music. Unfortunately, this makes me feel like I am stuck in a time warp. “Uncle, you have a problem,” I can almost hear the voice of youthful reason in my head saying.

So, I finally concluded why I just can’t relate to BTS. They look too alike, too effeminate, too skinny and too boyish. Androgyny doesn’t work for everyone, I guess.

I admit, this must reek of envy, but I’m past middle-age, have a waistline issue, and can’t handle the world moving on without me knowing it, especially since it signifies that it’s time for me (and those like me) to step aside.

I am finding it extremely difficult to see people comparing this South Korean group with oh, the greatest band of all time.

BTS and The Beatles? Really? Get real, come on.

I grew up listening to the Fab Four, as the boys from Liverpool were popularly called.

I even thought The Osmonds were good and as a kid, I naively presumed The Archies, were fantastic, until I learnt they didn’t exist – they were merely cartoon characters.

As I hit my teenage years, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles and Queen, entered my life. Now, these talented bands made seriously good music, which stirred my very soul.

They didn’t need to put on makeup, colour their hair or practise dance moves for hours.

They just did their thing by mesmerising us with Hotel California, Another Brick in the Wall and Bohemian Rhapsody, and we were completely taken in.

We had plenty of “satisfaction”, and by the time I reached adulthood, the disco scene exploded.

Surely, Bee Gees, Earth, Wind and Fire, Blondie, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, to name a few, had more hits (and depth) than these good looking South Korean boys?

And what about Billy Joel and Phil Collins? They are surely not known for their looks, but immense musical talent. No?

So, ok, these young boys don’t cut the mustard with me. What about the girl groups then, I wonder?

I don’t know if it was wise, but I decided to begin my research with Six Bomb, a group with an interesting name, surely. They documented their plastic surgeries (yes!) on video.

By this, I mean the girls danced with their faces covered in bandages. Yes, it’s that bizarre.

So, my young friend, Hui Wen, who waxes lyrical about K-pop culture, suggested I check out Blackpink instead. They look hot, but they are also skinny and too “alike” for my taste.

After listening and watching their hit video, Kill This Love, I knew any lingering fibre of affection I had for the genre was positively murdered.

I felt my face turning black and pink at the same time, I’m afraid.

And that marked the end of my K-pop flirtations, the nail in the coffin being watching Don’t Know What To Do, because I really didn’t know what to do after that.

Instead, I decided to settle for some kimchi, bulgogi, ginseng chicken soup and Korean barbeque, and watch a TV series about aging gangsters and, corrupt politicians and prosecutors.

OK, sillyehabnida – that’s “excuse me” in Korean. You mean you haven’t watched Korean dramas?

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.