Plugging a trillion ringgit debt hole

AFTER the alert over the country’s RM1 trillion national debt and the calls for patriotic citizens to donate to Tabung Harapan to plug this debt hole, we are now told that a new tallest skyscraper, “Tower M” is to be built to dwarf the soon-to-be tallest TRX 106 (“Tower N”?).

So, whatever happened to the call for austerity in government spending and the need to cut down on grandiose schemes? No prizes for guessing where the money for this latest white elephant will come from …

Right! The skyscraper will be built by KLCC (Holdings) Sdn Bhd (KLCCH), the property investment arm of our prized national oil company and supposed “sovereign wealth fund”, Petronas.

During Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s earlier tenure, Petronas had to build the then tallest building Dayabumi in the eighties and then the Petronas Twin Towers in the nineties. Does anyone know if there is any breathing soul in Dayabumi at the moment?

Meanwhile, the office occupancy rate and average rental in Kuala Lumpur city centre, Kuala Lumpur fringe and Selangor are expected to continue their down trend in 2018.

Do Malaysians realise that we have failed to build a sizeable sovereign wealth fund like that of Norway’s (US$1 trillion in assets, it made an annual return of US$131 billion in 2017 alone) simply because the substantial revenue from Petronas all these years has been squandered on grandiose projects and to bail out failed crony capitalists?

Yes, since the seventies the NEP has been largely funded by the exploitation of offshore oil which, by 1985 contributed 26% of all government revenues when oil registered a 29.6% share of major commodities export.

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who was the founding chairman and chief executive of Petronas, has been quoted as saying that Putrajaya has been using the oil and gas firm as a cash cow, especially in bailing out government-linked outfits of financial trouble.

He said that since its inception in 1974 and until 2011, Petronas had paid the government RM529 billion in dividends, taxes, petroleum proceeds and export duties. He said the reliance on Petronas to help government-linked outfits out of financial trouble had been going on since 1985.

A finance minister from 1976 to 1984, Razaleigh said Petronas had rescued Bank Bumiputra with a RM2.5 billion bailout in 1985 and again in 1991 when it coughed up another RM1 billion.

He said Petronas also had to rescue Konsortium Perkapalan Berhad for RM2 billion in 1997.

He added that Petronas was made to underwrite the construction of the Twin Towers for RM6 billion and the building of the extravagant Putrajaya, the administrative capital of the federal government, for RM22 billion:

“This amount could have been used more productively to fund a national pension programme for Malaysians, as has been done by a certain Scandinavian country.”

Razaleigh said the exorbitant amount of the bailout and construction of these projects that was forced onto Petronas had deprived the company of the much-needed cash build-up for reinvestment, which would ensure its business sustainability.

According to him, since 1997 the subsidies to the national power supplier, the independent power producers and some other non-power outfits amounted to RM136.5 billion.

And while these power producers continued to enjoy subsidised fuel price, petroleum subsidy to the consumers – which purportedly cost the government RM14 billion in 2011 – was partly discontinued.

If it had not been for the fortuitous outflow of oil, most of the prestige projects would not have been possible.

The profligate spending on all these grandiose projects has left little for reinvestment and social services for the present and future generations as a sovereign wealth fund such as Petronas is expected to accomplish:

“Insofar as ethical debates have begun to touch on how the assets of such funds should be distributed, they have tended to ask how these should be distributed internally, to citizens of the countries in question.

“Sovereign wealth funds are the creation of sovereigns, after all, and we might think that the first duty of a sovereign is to its people …” (Chris Armstrong, Sovereign Wealth Funds and Global Justice)

Not surprisingly, our East Malaysian brethren are not pleased to hear that our precious oil revenue will be siphoned into building “Tower M”.

After telling the East Malaysians before the last general election they should have a bigger share of Petronas’ revenue that they have been deprived by the BN government all these years, how are they supposed to react to this news of Petronas building another monument?

Sabah and Sarawak politicians and activists have long held that both states should get a fairer share of its oil and gas resources, pointing to the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 and income disparities between the Borneo states and Peninsular Malaysia and rightly so. They also insist that the Pan Borneo Highway, good roads, hospitals and schools are more urgent than another skyscraper in Kuala Lumpur.

Petronas belongs to the Malaysian people and yet through the years of profligate spending and bailing out failed crony capitalists, there is no transparency in its accounts.

Malaysia’s official accounts do not show how Petronas’ money is being spent – and the government has steadfastly refused to disclose any details about that.
Official data show Petronas payments to the state more than doubled between 2005 and 2011 as oil prices soared.

Malaysia’s spending swelled too, widening the budget deficit even though revenues rose. But Malaysia would not disclose what the Petronas money is being spent on. Petronas’ CEO and board as we know serve at the pleasure of the prime minister.

Transparency International has listed these key recommendations for Petronas:

» Publicly disclose exhaustive lists of subsidiaries, affiliates, joint ventures and other associated entities independent of their materiality status.
» Disclose key financial information on a country-by-country basis.
The finance minister has waxed lyrical about transparency in the “new” Malaysia. He can start by making Petronas’ accounts transparent and accountable to Parliament.
Having said that, I am reminded by Barry Wain that:
“Not required to disclose its financial accounts, Petronas reported by law to the prime minister rather than the finance minister as might be expected.”

Will any of the peoples’ representatives in the new Parliament champion this urgent cause of the Malaysian people? Until the “new” Malaysian government gets started with making the accounts of Petronas transparent, please spare us the expense of yet another building in the already claustrophobic Kuala Lumpur City Centre.

Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suaram. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Zakir Naik must ease the pressure

OF late, the issue related to Dr Zakir Naik has come to a boil so much so it is putting additional pressure on Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir has just turned 93 and all Malaysians are grateful for this given that he is much needed to place Malaysia where it rightfully belongs. He has enough on his plate.

Among Muslim countries, Malaysia has even more things to do as the world watches to gauge how Islam is regarded as ad-din – a way of life, and not just “religion” of rituals, the way it is perceived to be, at times with several cross-purposes.

Therefore we stand at a point of history to explore all available opportunities to be exemplary in planning and reconstructing our way forward. Let us not squander this.

Be mindful too that there are still gaps to be filled (recall the well-received short and impactful speech by Nik Omar, son of the late Nik Aziz, at Putrajaya before the general election) that many are looking forward to.

So not everything goes any more. We have a new benchmark now. What with the many misconceptions and stereotyped thinking among certain segments of Malaysians, once again it represents an opportunity of a lifetime which is literally God-sent (think of the odds that we have overcome) without any form of violence that Islam abhors and prohibits.

It only means that there must be even more concerted effort and conscious ones to ensure that various issues are appropriately handled in the spirit of openness and mutual respect without sacrificing the ultimate outcome for justice and peaceful co-existence. This is what Islam teaches and promotes as the way of life. This is the endpoint come what may both externally, more so internally (spiritually).

Under the circumstances we need all hands on deck including that of Zakir Naik.

Foremost as a “preacher” of Islam, I do believe he has a wealth of knowledge (and expertise – although I do not subscribe to such a thing) that could be marshalled to bring out the “right” message, let alone attitude, of Islam as the way of life.

Sometimes the “message” is “right” but not the attitude which I discern would be the case. Being a multi-dimensional society, Malaysians proudly and rightly want to live up to what Islam (literally means “peace”) prescribes by playing a prominent role in preserving and rooting diversity as a vital code of living that is in a sense divine.

This involves all living creatures and goes beyond mere rhetoric as observed in the many examples of the prophets, not just Muhammad (pbuh) as narrated in the hadith, but also that of Isa (Jesus) and Musa (Moses). Some would even argue of Buddha (also Confucius) who are deemed as prophets by some serious (Muslim) scholars.

In other words, Islam has so much “connectivity” (to use the current lingo) that must be revitalised for it to be fully understood, what is more lived, by connecting all the available relevant dots.

It is therefore incumbent upon Zakir to contemplate his role now that he is being put under intense spotlight internationally. It is irresponsible of him to do the same to the prime minister by forcing him into a predicament (read appearing publicly in the media especially now) if it only means to heap even more pressure on him to “solve” yet another problem when it could be easily done by Zakir himself.

Indeed this is to be expected of him, after all Malaysia has been generous enough to extend permanent residence to him (by the previous government). And like all good Muslims, returning a favour is a duty in demonstrating the true value of what Islam stands for so that others are able to comprehend and appreciate the Muslim way of life.

Short of this Zakir may have to think of other ways of easing the pressure on the prime minister by doing the right thing before the issue paints him as a “negative” poster boy for the world to see.

At least as an academic, he is compelled to come out in public to “answer” some of the pressing queries that are now fast distracting Malaysians from the task of building a unified, peace-promoting and balanced community (daulah) that Islam inspires.

He must bear in mind that Malaysia as a multi-dimensional society with tremendous potential that must be optimally leveraged within its own nuances. The ball is in his court. Hopefully, he will score the winning goal for all Malaysians to rejoice as part of the journey to capture the world’s imagination. God bless.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Tham Luang survivors likely to need long-term therapy

IN Thailand 12 boys and their young coach are once again above the ground enjoying fresh air and sunshine after more than two weeks trapped in the darkness of a cave wondering if they would ever see the sky again.

When we read the news that 12 boys and their coach had disappeared into a cave after football practice on June 23 and were thought drowned we all shared in the shock and sorrow.

Then the most amazing story of resilience, courage and achievement unfolded, a tale more potent than any fiction as the boys were found, sustained and rescued by a superhuman effort that cost the life of a brave navy diver.

The uncertainty, the hope, the sacrifice and the noble deeds of heroic rescuers from around the globe has moved all of us and shown us the best of humanity, but now that we have reached the end of this amazing story soon these events will fade from our collective memory, sinking into the same haziness as the Chilean miners and the baby in the well, but has the story really ended, has it reached its conclusion?

The answer for the boys, the coach and their families is clearly no; the events will for many of them become the defining moments of their lives.

Even though the Wild Boars are now free from the shadowy depths of Tham Luang cave, the deeper, darker mental impressions of this story may never fade and could shape their lives forever.

This small group has faced death and any threat to personal survival results in some form of psychological trauma, which in turn leads to memories that will remain vivid long after the threat has passed and some of the survivors may suffer longer-term post traumatic stress disorder, potentially leading to some of them developing mental health issues.

So what lessons can psychology teach us about what may happen and what may help the team?

In the relief of rescue the boys and their families will initially appear to be very happy, but very quickly family and friends will begin to notice some changes and may find it hard to re-establish the relationships that existed before their ordeal.

The teenage years are the time when we begin to individuate, to establish our individual identities as distinct from our family, and in boys this usually means forming strong friendship bonds with other young men.

As the post-traumatic stress begins to appear, some of the boys may appear to regress and return to behaviours that might be considered childish.

They may become scared of the dark, unable to sleep alone and prone to nightmares or disturbed sleep.

The resulting tiredness and psychological strain may combine and result in sudden outbursts of anger and irritation at the smallest things, so the boys may be seen as touchy and difficult.

The psychological insecurities of their ordeal may mean that the boys become quite tearful, easily upset, clingy around parents and other loved ones, seeking hugs, kisses, strokes and other physical signs of affection.

At first it is likely that the boys’ loved ones will be patient and accepting of strange behaviour, and parents or close relatives will certainly respond positively to demands for affection and attention, but in a few months these positive feelings may begin to subside.

A tetchy toddler is hard to deal with, but an angry teen is a difficulty multiplied, especially if he is unable to explain why he is angry and does not understand himself why his moods swing so easily.

In most cultures, men are expected to suppress their softer emotions as part of behaving as men so it is possible that some parents may become irritated at perceived childishness.

We should also remember that many of the boys will have brothers and sisters who may begin to feel that they are somehow less special, and as a consequence begin to compete for parental notice and love.

The strain on the families will be great and even if the psychotherapists working with the families now are able to deal with many immediate issues, it is likely that problems will emerge in the weeks and months ahead and these problems will test some families to their limits.

We cannot predict when these problems will occur because they could be triggered by so many things, by anything that reminds the survivors of their ordeal, a chance remark, a damp smell, the sound of rushing water.

So many things could initiate a flashback that might lead to a serious mental health problem that the boys and their families will need to be vigilant for a very long time.

This will be very wearing for all concerned, but we know that a strong and supportive community can help to mitigate many of these risks, so the boys’ extended families and social networks have a critical part to play in helping those directly affected to deal with the aftereffects of the rescue.

There will also be blame and there will also be guilt. Although the coach and the boys were innocent victims of the weather, already some of those connected with the families and the Moo Pa club will be focusing on who should take responsibility for what has happened.

When they are upset and fearful many people respond with anger and aggression, so already behind closed doors the accusations will be flying, there will be mutterings leading to whispered demands for retribution and punishment.

The survivors will know this from catching the end of the odd conversation, the sudden awkward silence when they come into a room, or when one day, and it will happen one day, someone says “If you hadn’t got yourself lost in Tham Luang then …”.

Once these words have been spoken they cannot be unsaid, so some of the boys will blame themselves for what happened and somehow feel that they failed, potentially triggering a collapse in self-esteem and beginning a spiral to deep depression, a sense of guilty worthlessness.

This means that those who know and interact with the boys will need to exercise incredible levels of self-restraint and self-control, and do all that they can to avoid mentioning the events of the last few weeks, and when the topic is raised they must be calm and supportive.

At the other end of the scale, some of the boys will experience feelings of importance and this may possibly shade into narcissism.

The extensive media coverage means that these boys are already celebrities and it is likely that some of them will become stars, perhaps even taking leading roles in the documentaries and film(s) that will inevitably be made of the story.

There will be interviews and photo sessions, book deals and publicity events, but these things will not be distributed evenly within the group, leading to resentment among the 13.

Those who sustained each other through the darkness may find it hard to maintain their friendship under the studio lights, leading the boys who are perhaps less media savvy to feel excluded and cheated of their fame.

Again families may exert a more or less subtle pressure on their sons, making it clear they feel that they have not benefited financially or socially in the ways that other families may have done.

This could cause some boys to experience deep feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness, leading in turn to a profound melancholy that may initiate any number of psychoses.

Professor Hew Gill is the head (academic) of the Department of Psychology, Sunway University. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Part II appears tomorrow.

Freedom of expression in new Malaysia

WHAT a breath of fresh air it was to read activist lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri’s thought provoking musings (“Don’t kiss the hands that beat you”) on the meaning of freedom and dignity and the levels of social constraints that still shackle us despite the illusion of democracy when we vote once every five years. Her thoughts are the stuff of academic discussions in institutions of higher learning of substance anywhere in the world and one would hope, also in ‘new’ Malaysia.

Unfortunately, we hear that Fadiah is under investigation over this article deemed “seditious” (sic) for questioning the royal institution. She has been summoned to appear at the Brickfields police station after a report was lodged over her article and we have learnt that the police are investigating her under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

Critical and creative thinking in ‘new’ Malaysia?

The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 by the old regime claims to “develop 21st century skills such as critical and creative thinking” and further laments that our graduates lack critical thinking and communication skills. Our new education minister started off with progressive sounding resolutions when he was just appointed but straightaway we are confronted with a real-life case of the old one-size-fits-all gagging methods by the police using the colonial Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).

The education minister should have a word with the new home minister and the police about harmonising the need for creative and critical thinking with the needs of homeland security and insecurity of our local elite.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental liberty in our Constitution

The police should be reminded that Article 10 of the Federal Constitution guarantees Malaysians the freedom of expression. The article written by Fadiah certainly did not constitute incitement to hatred or violence. She was expressing an opinion on an issue of public interest, namely the nature of our constitutional monarchy institution in the light of recent events following the GE14. Our doyens in the local varsity departments of Social Science should congratulate her for contributing to this constructive and intellectually stimulating political discourse.

Her right to freedom of expression as a social activist and intellectual must be respected because such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness that our founding fathers and mothers wanted for our democratic society and especially now, the supposedly ‘new’ Malaysia.

Who polices the police in ‘new’ Malaysia?

In the ‘new’ Malaysia, we do not expect the police to jump whenever some nincompoop makes a police report against anyone or any organisation. Apart from the wanton waste of taxpayers’ money, acting on frivolous police reports simply makes our police force look foolish. It is the responsibility of the inspector-general of police and the home minister to ensure that there is a standard operating procedure for the police to sieve through police reports and to finally decide which report to bin and which to take further action. Only when the police believe there is a case to take action should anybody be called in take statements.

One would expect the person or persons who make that final decision are well schooled in the humanities and in human rights besides the rudiments of policing. Clearly, the police hierarchy in a ‘new’ Malaysia needs to possess sufficient maturity and calibre to decide what is offensive, sexist, racist or anti-human rights and what promotes “creative and critical thinking” as stated in the Education Blueprint. It is time for the police to be fully accountable for their actions and not to act like mindless automatons whenever some joker decides to make a police report against a respectable concerned Malaysian or NGO.

No pussyfooting on promises in PH manifesto please

The new PH government should take note: From the continuing reports of child marriages and unilateral conversions to the recognition of the UEC, we are seeing more and more examples of pussyfooting by the PH government over their manifesto promises.

We certainly do not intend to see any backtracking by the new PH government over their promise to abolish the totally discredited colonial law, the Sedition Act and to remove the irksome portions of the CMA that were used by the old regime against so many activists and leaders in civil society as well as opposition leaders who are now in the ruling government.

So, the African-American social critic Dick Gregory was not just trying to be funny when he said: “Political promises are much like marriage vows for some people …They are made at the beginning of the relationship between candidate and voter but are quickly forgotten”.

Suaram says: Hands off Fadiah! Respect her right to freedom of expression! Abolish the Sedition Act now!

Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suaram. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Declaration of assets: Start with Taib

FROM the ongoing investigation into the fabulous wealth of the former prime minister (PM) that had been compounded by the police, this question immediately springs to mind: Is the accumulated wealth by Najib and his wife exceptional among Malaysian public officials? Are they an aberration? Are there any other Malaysian public officials wallowing in such wealth?

From the ferocity of the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s actions against the former PM, it must be assumed that their top priority is fighting corruption and promoting good public governance. Hence, making it mandatory for all public officials to declare all their assets, including those of their spouses and children, as it is crucial to the campaign of preventing corruption in politics.

An obvious target for assets declaration would surely be the former chief minister (CM) of Sarawak for more than three decades, Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud who has been touted to be the richest individual in Malaysia. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir has been quoted as saying that no action can be taken to investigate Taib because no police report has been made against him.

Soon after, he said that he was soundly contradicted by Baram PKR chairman Roland Engan who said that he had filed a recent formal complaint against Taib Mahmud for alleged corruption and power abuse while still chief minister. He said the report was lodged at the Miri office of the MACC on June 6, a week after he lodged a similar report against Taib with the Miri police on May 29. Other state leaders have also said that they had made similar police reports against the former CM through the years. In the peninsula, Suaram will be making a report so that it catches the eye of the PM.

Perhaps the richest man in Malaysia

For years, the former Sarawak chief minister controlled all the state and federal contracts handed out in Sarawak and privatised most of its key industries into his own family companies. An audit on the Mahmud family, conducted by Swiss NGO, the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), has estimated his wealth at more than RM46 billion – perhaps the richest man in Malaysia, richer than anyone in the Forbes 50! The business activities and personal wealth of Taib’s family extends to business interests in Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the UK, the US and other countries. These family members include his four children, his siblings, cousin Hamed Sepawi and also his two sons-in-law and brother-in-law, Robert Geneid.

According to the evidence gathered by BMF, Taib had distributed his largesse among his family members: Taib’s elder son, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, a major player in the Sarawak construction, property and energy business, has been rated at US$1.5 billion; Taib’s daughter Jamilah Taib Murray (US$1 billion); Taib’s brother Tufail Mahmud (US$600 million); sister Raziah Mahmud (US$500 million); daughter Hanifah (US$400 million) and son Sulaiman (US$300 million). Timber conglomerate Ta Ann founder and Sarawak Energy chairman, Hamed Sepawi is rated at US$175 million. Their respective spouses are beneficiaries of his spectacular wealth.

One such property, Sakti International Corp in the US manages properties totalling an estimated US$80 million including the Abraham Lincoln Building, which houses the FBI’s offices in Seattle, Washington.

In the 30 years of Taib’s reign as chief minister, timber companies have cut more than 90% of the tropical rainforest, leaving forest-dwellers like the Penan deprived of their ancestral lands and means of subsistence.

What happened to MACC’s investigations into Taib’s fortunes?

In June 2011, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) said that it had initiated investigations into Taib’s alleged millions in Swiss banks after Swiss financial authorities began looking into his tangled fortune. The Swiss Anti-Corruption Agency had frozen his assets over allegations of timber corruption. MACC commissioner Datuk Seri Abu Kassim Mohamed said it was in the process of gathering more information regarding the matter. So far, we have heard nothing more of these investigations.

Meanwhile, BMF has said it is willing to share with the Pakatan Harapan government, the results of a seven-year evidence-gathering process on alleged corrupt practices by Taib, who is Sarawak governor. This was in response to Mahathir’s call to show evidence on his alleged corrupt practices.

On April 20, 2018, Taib and his family were accused in a lawsuit of funnelling proceeds of corruption to fund the expansion of the Ottawa-based real estate company Sakto Group’s US$259 million real estate empire. Sakto is run by Sean Murray and his wife, Jamilah Taib. Sakto, founded in 1983, owns several office and residential towers in Canada’s capital, including offices in the Preston Square office complex as well as the 158-unit luxury condo building, The Adelaide.

BMF has estimated the combined net worth of 20 Taib family members at close to US$21 billion, spread over 400 companies around the globe accumulated over three decades. The family has controlled the granting of logging and plantation concessions, the export of timber, the maintenance of public roads as well as the production and sale of cement and other construction materials. The Taib family’s flagship company, Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS) has benefitted from untendered public contracts worth hundreds of millions of US dollars such as the RM10 billion Bakun dam, another mega project under the Mahathir administration in the Nineties; RM300 million state legislative assembly building in Kuching; maintenance of all 4,000km-long state roads in Sarawak and a 15-year concession to maintain 643km of federal roads.

PH government must be consistent in their war on kleptocracy

Najib failed to take action against Taib but the new PH government has pledged to wipe out kleptocracy and it was what gave them the victory at GE14. They must not disappoint the people of Malaysia, especially Sarawakians who have seen the wealth of their state sucked dry by the rapacious greed of the kleptocrats there. They can start by making former chief minister Taib declare all his assets and those of his spouse and family’s. The MACC should reveal the results of the investigations into Taib’s fabulous wealth. The PH government has shown us that where there is a political will in getting to the root of the 1MDB scandal, there is a way to rid Malaysia of corruption and crony capitalism.

Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suaram. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Make ban on single-use plastics work

OUR Minister of Housing and Local Government Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin and Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s proposal to ban single-use plastic packaging for environmental reasons is a welcome move.

We have seen both within Malaysia and abroad that voluntary plastic bag reduction campaigns have not worked. Trying to engender voluntary change often means investing a lot of money into public education and outreach efforts for very low success rates. Statistics have shown that awareness does not always translate into a shift in consumer behaviour, even in developed nations such as the US and Australia. For plastic waste reduction strategies to work, public education campaigns must be held together with plastic packaging bans. Behavioural change will take place only when a binding policy with a system of penalties and enforcement is in place.

It must be pointed out, however, that a nationwide ban on single-use plastic packaging can only begin to register positive results if the ban is extended to the retail sale of packaging and to fast food outlets, food courts, markets, hawkers, petty traders and businesses other than supermarkets and major retailers. Plastic bags, disposable plastic tableware and styrofoam and plastic food packaging can still be purchased from supermarkets and retail stores. This defeats the purpose of banning free plastic bags and the sale of food in styrofoam packaging if consumers can still purchase these items cheaply off supermarket or shop shelves.

In fact, one of the major complaints by consumers following the Selangor state government’s ban on polystyrene food packaging and free plastic bags in 2017 is that the ban is a financial burden on consumers since they now have to pay for the plastic bags and packaging by buying them from shops rather than obtaining them for free with every purchase. From this complaint, it is clear that the move has not resulted in sufficient behavioural and attitude change and has only resulted in consumers purchasing more packaging instead of giving up or using less plastic packaging for environmental reasons. To wean the nation off single-use plastics, we need to remove the option of being able to purchase single-use plastics cheaply and conveniently.

If the protection of wildlife and the natural environment is our objective in reducing plastic waste, then this policy must necessarily extend beyond plastic bags and also cover other single-use plastics including all styrofoam products, plastic drinking straws, plastic cup lids, plastic meat and produce trays, clingfilm, plastic cotton buds, disposable cutlery, food takeaway packaging and other environmentally harmful products such as plastic glitter and toiletries containing microbeads. Oxo-degradable plastic bags that are not truly compostable and biodegradable and non-woven shopping bags should also be banned, as they disintegrate into toxic petro-polymers and should not therefore be marketed or used as alternatives to conventional plastic bags. As long as these items are not included in the ban, it will be very difficult to mitigate the environmental damage caused by plastic bags.

To resolve the issue of consumers claiming that they now need to purchase rubbish bags since retailers are no longer giving out free plastic bags, we can introduce a policy allowing only the distribution of plastic bags above 20 micron (0.02 mm) in thickness and with a minimum capacity of 10 litres, the cost of which will be borne by consumers to increase the chances that these plastic bags are reused for storage and waste disposal, and are only purchased if necessary. Over time, conventional plastic bags and rubbish bags, including pet waste bags, should be phased out and banned and replaced with compostable bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432.

Retailers and manufacturers need to be given some time, for example, one year, to phase out the production, sale and distribution of single-use plastics. This will give both businesses and consumers time to make changes and source for alternatives. This will require regulations that will not only regulate the sale and distribution of plastic bags and other single-use plastics by retailers, but also regulations to stop fast food outlets and eateries from giving out plastic lids, straws and plastic cutlery for free, clinics and service providers to stop distributing medicine and other items in lightweight plastic bags, and food and beverage manufacturers to phase out excessive plastic packaging such as individually-wrapped biscuits and snack foods and 3-in-1 beverage sachets, which are convenience products and were not even common until the last decade or two.

Incentives must be created to not only allow but encourage consumers to buy items such as vegetables loose or using their own produce bags, and to phase out the practice of wrapping individual fruits, vegetables and other products in clingfilm and selling such products in trays covered in clingfilm. Styrofoam and soft plastic supermarket produce and food trays are generally not recyclable, and even those that are made of recyclable plastics are not recovered for recycling due to its low grade and the fact that once contaminated by food and grease, it is no longer accepted for recycling. As paper bags have a high carbon and water footprint despite being less harmful to wildlife and human health, they should be used only sparingly as an alternative to plastic bags, for example, its use should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery and shopping bags. Alternatives to single-use plastics can include either biodegradable and compostable trays and packaging, or higher-grade recyclable plastic containers with lids (to eliminate the need for clingfilm and shrink wrap) that are recovered for recycling through a container deposit and recycling buyback system.

Volunteers who participate in beach and jungle clean-ups in Malaysia will find that a lot of the litter consists of items with a purportedly high recycling value, such as aluminium cans and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. This would indicate that there are not enough financial incentives for recycling in Malaysia. To increase solid waste recycling rates and reduce littering, I would recommend introducing a container deposit legislation such as those in place in Norway, Germany and Sweden. To make the financial incentive for recycling higher, the deposit needs to be of significant value, for example, 20 to 50 sen per item. The consumers bear the cost of this deposit, which they can then recover by collecting and returning the items for recycling. This container deposit system should include aluminium, steel and unbroken glass containers, plastic bottles including shampoo and detergent bottles and plastic containers such as the ones recommended above to replace plastic supermarket and food trays. It is not necessary to have expensive automated reverse vending machines or door-to-door collection systems to implement this container deposit system. We can use existing recycling collection centres and buyback centres and existing infrastructure such as local council offices, schools, residents’ association centres and community centres as recycling buyback centres.

To reduce littering in national parks and areas of ecological significance, entrance fees and hiking and camping permits should include an entry inspection system to charge hikers, campers and picnickers a deposit for each item in disposable packaging brought into the park, and refund the same only when these items are brought back for disposal upon exit.

Bans on lightweight plastic bags and single-use plastics are neither new nor revolutionary, and countries and cities that have implemented it report of positive consumer behavioural change and a reduction in littering. Since Denmark introduced a charge on plastic bags in 1993, the usage of plastic bags has been halved from 800 million bags to 400 million bags annually. The People’s Republic of China reported a 66% drop in plastic bag usage since its ban on lightweight plastic bags. Ireland’s plastic bag tax resulted in a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter. Kenya’s ban on plastic bags, described as the World’s Toughest Plastic Bag Ban, has shown such positive results within a year that neighbouring countries – Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan – are considering following suit. The European Union has also in May 2018 proposed a ban on plastic cotton buds, drink stirrers, drinking straws and balloon sticks to cut down on marine litter. Considering that bans and taxes on single-use plastics have been successfully implemented and upheld in both developed and developing nations and jurisdictions, there is no reason why it cannot be effective and similarly successful in Malaysia.

A reduction in plastic waste and litter is not only beneficial to wildlife and the natural environment. Governments and local authorities stand to gain economically from the reduced costs of cleaning up public spaces and processing waste in landfills. Less plastic litter would result in fewer clogged drains and, streams and fewer flash floods. There would be fewer breeding grounds for mosquitoes, rats and other disease vectors if there were less litter and fewer landfills. Governments and local businesses would benefit from increased tourism opportunities when recreational areas and tourist destinations are cleaner and free from litter. Clearly a ban on single-use plastics will require minor adjustments and behavioural change on the part of Malaysians, but the long-term benefits to the environment, society and the economy will outweigh any initial inconvenience.

Comment: letters@thesundaily.com

Turkey on a roll with Erdogan

FEW phobias run deeper in Europe than the fear and hatred of Turks. For at least 600 years, Europe was locked in innumerable wars with first Seljuk, then Ottoman Turks. My big St Bernard is a descendant of dogs bred to attack Arab and Turkish raiders coming over Switzerland’s St Bernard Pass.

Today, by contrast, there are some 10 million ethnic Turks in Europe, most of whom came in past decades as guest labourers, prized for their hard work, honesty and reliability.

Turkey joined Nato in 1952 at a time when the US dominated the continent and Middle East. The Turkish armed forces were the second largest in Nato after the US.

Joined at the hip with the US military, the Turkish generals ran the government in Ankara behind a screen of squabbling politicians.

The US gave Turkey its marching orders. Turkey’s small but powerful westernised elite was delighted to follow Washington and keep Islam in Turkey handcuffed or exiled to rural areas.

This all changed in 1994 when a young, 40-year-old nationalist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, became a reformist mayor of Istanbul and began cleaning up and modernising the decrepit metropolis. After a brief jail term for reading an ancient Islamic poem, he was released and formed the Justice and Development Party (AK) which is an Islamist Lite party dedicated to democracy guided by principles of national pride, welfare for the poor and elderly, sharing wealth, supporting fellow Muslims and urging followers to lead lives of moderation.

There was no stopping the dynamic Erdogan, who was a semi-pro footballer before his full-time political career. By 2003, he was elected prime minister by Turkey’s 81 million people and ever since has proved wildly popular with the majority of Turks.

The big city westernised elites in Turkey, who deny their Muslim culture and try to pass for Europeans, bitterly oppose Erdogan and his Islamic allies.

Under Erdogan’s predecessors, the alliance of westernised elites and the military controlled the nation’s media, education, courts, diplomatic corps and big business, all with Washington’s blessing.

During the long pre-Erdogan era, Turkey’s parliamentary government was a bad joke and its finances catastrophic. Turks are great soldiers, cooks and architects, but not so good with finances. During the Ottoman days, finance was often run by Armenians, Jews and Greeks (as in Czarist Russia).

Over the past decades, Erdogan and his AK have restored Turkey’s rickety finances, boosted the economy, imposed more efficient, honest government, made peace with the restive Kurdish minority, ended feuds with neighbours, and forced the 600,000-man army back to its barracks and out of politics. The generals and secular bigwigs, who staged 16 coups since WWII, were enraged.

To no surprise, the elite and some generals launched yet another coup in July 2016. The coup, joined by key army and air force units, came close to killing Erdogan but was then thwarted by a massive national popular uprising that blocked the plotter’s tanks and airfields. Some 10,000 people were involved in the coup, including senior officers, academics, journalists and two other key plotters: Turkish religious cult leader Fethullah Gulen, who lived in exile in the US; and a few members of Turkey’s shadowy intelligence agency, MIT which spearheaded Turkey’s covert intervention in Syria. The coup was based at the US-run airbase at Incirlik. Most Turks believe the US was behind the coup.

Washington has long been annoyed by Erdogan’s independent-minded actions, notably in Syria and Palestine. Israel’s hard right government, now the dominant force in US foreign policy, despises Erdogan for supporting the Palestinian cause. As a result, the US intelligence services, media and Congress are bitterly anti-Erdogan. His warming relations with Russia have further annoyed the US, leading to more anti-Erdogan plots in the military. The US media keeps blasting Erdogan while totally ignoring the brutal dictatorship in Egypt, a major US-Saudi vassal state.

Hostility against Erdogan has increased since he won a landslide electoral victory last week to become Turkey’s new, powerful president. He had emerged as the most important Turkish leader and moderniser since Ataturk, who died in 1938. If Turkey only had oil, as it did pre-WWI, it would be an important world power.

Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist, writing mainly about the Middle East and South Asia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Kim 10 Trump 0

ECONOMIST magazine won the day recently with the best-ever headline about the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit: “Kim Jong Won!”

That said it all. Just out of hospital, I was in no shape to compete with the great Economist or its very witty headline writers. But after watching a week of post Singapore summit between Great White Father Trump and delinquent Kim Jong-un I must totally agree with the Economist.

What was billed as a second-coming extravaganza between the two leaders – who have been trading insults of “little rocket man” and “dotard” (someone who is senile) turned out to be a very expensive photo op for both publicity seekers that made much noise but produced very little – at least so far. It seemed as if two schoolyard bullies had been forced by the principal to shake hands.

Beyond gestures, North Korea’s leader certainly came out ahead. His objective – and those of his family predecessors for the past 60 years – was to normalise relations with the US, start trade, and end US efforts to overthrow the Marxist government in Pyongyang.

Trump’s objectives, at least initially, were to crush North Korea and the threats it could pose to the United States and its regional allies Japan and South Korea. Trump sought to set up Kim as a bogeyman, and himself as America’s saviour. Trump knew perfectly well that he could not destroy all of North Korea’s deeply buried nuclear-armed missiles, and, in spite of his huffing and puffing, had no stomach for an invasion of North Korea that could cost the US an estimated 250,000 casualties.

So Trump’s solution was more show-biz. A much ballyhooed flight to Singapore, backslapping a delighted Kim, and a love-fest between the two chunky leaders was sold to Americans as the dawn of peace. America’s media was quick to retail the story and burnish Trump’s credentials among the seriously credulous. No more hiding under your school desks or in dank basements. As Trump grandly proclaimed, Americans no longer have to fear North Korea and can sleep peacefully at night!

Why? Korea still has all of its medium and long-ranged missiles and an estimated 40 or more nuclear warheads. The North is developing submarines that can launch nuclear-armed missiles from underwater off America’s coasts. For Kim, these weapons are purely defensive, designed to prevent a US attack on his nation. But he is now a full-fledged member of the nuclear club.

Equally important, North Korea still has an estimated 14,000 170mm guns and hundreds of 300mm long-ranged rocket launchers emplaced in caves just north of the Demilitarised Zone between the two Koreas. They threaten almost all of South Korea’s capital Seoul north of the Han River and some US military bases and key airfields, notably Osan.

This is a very real threat – one that is largely immune to attack from the air. I have seen these emplacements from the northern edge of the DMZ. Kim’s big guns hold Seoul’s millions of inhabitants hostage.

There is no mention of this artillery threat in the final communiqué issued by Trump and Kim in Singapore. But it was agreed to temporarily stop the highly provocative US/South Korean war games simulating an invasion of the North, a key demand by Kim. This column has been calling for their end for a decade. North Korea will seemingly halt its missile tests.

This is not the “denuclearisation” of North Korea that has been bandied about. There may be a few gestures of disarmament but Kim must know that his nukes are his means of survival. In case Kim didn’t remember the dire fate of Iraq, Libya, and Syria, Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton, a fanatic’s fanatic, cheerfully recalled the doom of Libya’s murdered Col Gaddafi.

The Singapore summit was also a huge humiliation for America’s allies Japan and South Korea. In Asia, preserving “face” is essential.

Trump completely ignored America’s two old allies after his meeting with Kim – who routinely blasts Japan and South Korea as “America’s stooges”. Instead, Trump sent his beginner Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to explain what happened in Singapore, inflicting a deep loss of face on Tokyo and Seoul. This was a terrible insult and could spark decisions by at least Japan to proceed ahead with its covert nuclear programme. Japan can deploy nuclear weapons in three to six months; South Korea is not far behind.

The United States and North Korea are now on a more civilised level of behaviour. But nothing basic has been resolved. Maybe Trump has some more concessions up his sleeve, like cutting the number of US troops in the South. But Korea is now on the back burner as Trump wages trade wars around the globe.

Eric S. Margolis is a syndicated columnist, writing mainly about the Middle East and South Asia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com