Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Welcome 2011 - Year of Hope and Promises

Welllll...New Year is here again, with lots of promises to raise everyone's hopes to the sky.

In Malaysia we see the political parties in power undergoing a soul-searching transformation to face the 13GE. The National
Front (BN) sees UMNO, MCA and MIC overhauling themselves with old leaders taking a backseat ( or heading a no less powerful vehicle with less vroom) and new faces taking over. In many cases the new faces came as a surprise (even out of the blues) edging away some well-known characters. ( Thus the common edgy response: It's better to work with the devil that you know..) Even rejected leaders maybe pulled back to the front seat, Aaaagh. Many powerful Cabinet seats are not filled by popularly elected leaders but by trusted friends of the Numero Uno. And many popularly elected leaders are not pulled into the corridors of power.

Be that as it may, the size of the development funds and budget as announced from time to time by the government gives the impression that money is growing on tress in Malaysia. Billions here and billions there, hundreds of million there, more huindreds of millions here. Normal projects have become megas. Contractors all over the country must be dancing with joy. But are they? The smaller ones seem to be still grumbling. Probably the millions are not coming their way but through well-planned channels. Wallahu alam.

One thing that bothers everyone: the leakages and losts of public funds through negligence, mismanagement or corruption ( let the MACC determine which) are also running into billions and hundreds of millions. The GLCs seem to be where the biggest leakages occur with prominent politicians at the head while some senior civil servants and professionals have also been implicated and promptly brought before the court of justice. Many investigations involving the former seem to fizzle out without the real culprit brought to book and this seems to cause serious indigestion among the opposition members in Parliament and the more public-spirited men on the street. Independent bloggers are most articulate and noisy on this matter
while the mainstream media is very cautious and laconic.

As a last remark in welcoming the New Year, we cannot avoid noting the fact that the Pakatan is undergoing a serious strain
with some differences between the Party Keadilan Rakyat, PAS and DAP becoming more and more pronounced. Worse is the leadership struggle that seems to go on within the constituent parties, especially PKR. The de facto leader is not only under seige by the law but also by his former collegues.

Well, that's the scenario in brief without getting into specifics. A most interesting fact is that while there seem to be a lot of stress and strain on the political front with doubts and uncertainties riding on the financial state of the nation, the people and country seem to be stable and moving along well. There are flashes of racial tensions and conflicts in the press and in Parliamentary debates, but you certainly don't see them in the street. All races seem to be on the best of terms when enjoying teh tarik, ruti canai and nasi lemak in the restaurants and food stalls. There is no sign of tension whatever in the shopping complexes except among husbands saddled with a huge shopping bill.

On the social front, everything seems to point to a glorious 2011. We just hope that the political and economic squabbles among major contestants will not upset the peace and harmony that had prevailed for years.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Wish for Mankind

It's Chritmas time again and we see the towns and cities in Malaysia sprouting green and gold within their premises. The glitters are everywhere with the Christmas trees, the deers and sledges and Santa Clause beaming with Christmas cheers. Especially in the shopping complexes and hotels where the crowds are gathered.

As on other festive occasions in Malaysia, we see the country and people putting on their best festive mood and showing off a happy and prosperous life. The focus this time around is. of course, on the cities and towns, not the more rural areas as on other festive occasions like the Hariraya, CNY, Deepavali, Gawai etc. Even the New Year which will come in hot pursuit is not celebrated as conspicuous and voraciously in the rural areas, as in the urban centres throughout the country.

Do we see a rural-urban divide here? Maybe, but not in a serous way. The Christmas and New Year celebrations do spread into the rural areas because of the holidays and the hoardes of people going back to their rural roots to celebrate. Anyway, I don't remember any occasion other than the two Harirays when people in the rural villages really go all out to celebrate. The spirit of the urban festivities and shindigs does not seem to reach them, unlike when we celebrate the CNY, Deepavali, etc., not explicitly anyway.

Christmas and the New Year are celebrated more by our urban population, centered in the clubs, hotels and fun places. There will be partying, feasting and dancing till dawn. The booze and drinks will flow like the monsoon drains on a rainy day. The revellers represent mostly the business community people, the office workers and high society ladies and gents. They certainly represent the most prosperous segment and cream of the Malaysian Society, the upper and higher middle-class people used to a life of luxury and comfort.

That goes for the whole world including the common folks in Christendom. They will also go all out to celebrate but probably giving more emphasis to the religious tradition and ceremonies attached to Christmas. The church bells will chime, the seats will be full, sermons will be read, the hymns sung while the choir will belt out sweet Christmas carols. The clubs, hotels and fun houses on the other hand will devote all attention to just merry-making.

Are the Christmas and New Year celebrations merely for fun and merry-making? While most people are doing just that. let's not forget that they are others, Christians and non-christians, who are undergoing extreme hardships and torments in life, especially those who are the victims of natural disasters, epidemics, malnutrition and starvation and other calamities created by their fellow human beings such as through wars and socio-political conflicts and unrests. Don't we even think of them when we are drinking and dancing our way through the yultide evening and night, with food and drinks being wasted away like the baubles and glitters which decorate the festives ballrooms, halls and lounges? Are we supposed to forget all the woes and sufferings of these people for the period of the celebrations?

We wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year of course. But I also wish for mankind to think of the miseries and the miserables that plague todays world, in spite of the progress, prosperity and technological perfections achieved. I wish that people will stop killing and hurting each other in the name of promoting justice and humanity, trying to spread peace through wars, fighting corruption with corrupt practices, and instilling kindness among people through cruel laws and regulations. If the true spirit of Christmas and New Year is evoked, we will certainly move a step further towards creating a better world and a more humane society,

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Day of Solemn Reflection

I had some other plans yesterday (20/12/10) but destiny dictates otherwise. Early morning my wife received a call informing her that a close relative had passed away. We had to be in Juasseh, Kuala Pilah, to pay her our last respect and attend the burial ceremony. The previous evening our daghter had also become the victim of food poisoning. She was still very weak and dazed from a lot of purging and vomitting. We had to take her to her grandma's house before going to Juasseh. At least she'd not be left alone there.

It was some two and a half hours' journey by car to Juasseh before, now shrunk to about just over an hour with time for lunch. How come.? The roads have been improved consirably with a shortcut accross country via LEKAS ( the Kajang-Setemban Express Highway) and a straightened road over the hills of Bukit Putus ( the Seremban-Ulu Bendul Highway or SUBUH - no name given and that is my suggestion). The older North-South highway had become too congested while the old Bukit Putus twister road needs only a heavily loaded truck (lorry) crawling up in front of you to cause a bumper-to-bumper jam over a narrow, hilly area of some six kilometers. The name Broken Hill Road ( Jalan Bukit Putus) was really an appropriate sobriquet for the older passage between Seremban and Ulu Bendul.

The mad-rush journey was quite uneventful. Except for two or three accidents between cars and the same number involving motocycles. Is that uneventful? Yes consideration that an accident like the Simpang Pulai-Kampung Raja bus accident accident can quash 27 lives. No one seemed to be killed in the five or six accidents I saw though but the jams they caused were attrocious. Most surprisingly an accident on one side of a dual highway caused as nasty a jam on the other side of the road as well. People slow down to see and, seemingly, enjoy the sight. Then they speed on again as if nothing has happened.

When we reached the house of our late Auntie, the oft unoccupied house was already teeming with relatives and visitors.( See pics). I've never seen so many people gathered at the house while she was alive, even on a festive occasion. Yes, people really gather together at a house only on two occasions - a death or a wedding. Those are the times when you can see almost all the relatives and friends of people living in that house. Never at any other times. After meeting those assembled under the porch, i learned that the grand old lady had not arrived yet from the hospital at the place she passed away. Her remains was on the way back home, carried by a van dedicated for the transportation of the dead - the modern mobile hearse.

Every mosque in the village seemed to have such a van nowadays with the name of the village which owns it boldly emblazoned on the sides of the van. The van is often new and modern but the stretcher on which the corpse is carried often looked cheap and rickety. I would consider it an insult to the dead, seeing how others respect and pamper their departed. On two occasions, in my own and my wife's village, the Imam was complaining that there was no money to buy a new stretcher. I suppose the van is bought by government or with its assistance. Will have to check on that.

The Muslim's burial ceremony is very simple. The dead is given a last prayer in the house ( or mosque/madrasah) by those in attendance ( even women are allowed to join in), all standing up and in close formation. No rukuk, sujud or iktidal. A representative of the departed will then thank everyone in attendance and proclaim that if the departed had any outstanding debt to anyone, a claim for repayment can be made to him. Normally nobody does and the debt is just forgotten or considered as a gift to the departed. Yes, If the departed rests in the house overnight, visitors will come and read the al-quran (surah Yassin) on his/her behalf almost throughout the night.
The real burial ceremony is again very simple. ( Those who accompany the departed to the graveyard often take the opportunity to visit the grave of beloved ones).

The departed is laid to rest in a grave six feet deep and after the ground is levelled again with a rectangular ridge to mark where he/she is buried, the Imam and crowd sit beside it to perform the "hand over" ceremoney to Allah. The 'takqin' reminds the departed of what his/her answer should be when questioned by Allah's Inquisitioners ( Munkar wa Nangkir), that the joy of life on earth has ended for him/her, and that all were giving a final goodbye to him/her. The Doa will be read and everyone present joins in the endorsement of the praises to Allah the Most Merciful requesting Him to place the soul of the departed among the souls of the blessed.

After that everyone goes home leaving the departed in his/her final place of rest.( For three nights after this some people hold a doa reading ceremony with some refreshments}.

It's a most sobering occasion, inviting one to reflect on one's own journey in life and what one has done to deserve a place in heaven. Or will it be some place else? It's always a sublime experience to me and this is the first time I've recorded it in writing so that others might want to share it with me. Amin.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Politics, Business and Religion

(The trilogy of Human Duress)

To me the three topics - politics, business and religion - seem to command the concern of the world today. Sports, hobbies, fashion etc fill up the rest of human concern. Politics and business top the bill in the news media while sports and fashion make up the commercial headliners, which sometimes qualify as business news. Love, marriage and sex of course transverse the whole gamut of human activities and interests, often lying at the very root of all motivation.

I like to focus for now on the relationships between politics, business and religion, the three things that seem to divide the world.It's politics that create friends and enemies, supporters and opponents (or oppositions), divide people in the same country and region, cause unrest, protests, feuds and even wars. Business and commercial interests tend to bring people and nations together but not when there's a wrangle for ownership of scarce resources- land, valuable ores, oil etc. When that happens business interests become political.

But religion? It can be deadly divisive as when people kill each other over religious belief and faith in the past and to some extent even now, but otherwise it lies at the back of the human mind as a personal secret (not unlike love and desire) and only stirs up emotions when the followers of one faith begin to denigrate or insult the beliefs and customs of another group. That emotion, however, can quickLy spread to become a national and political issue, even on a global basis!

We see then how important the trilogy of human duress ( I call it so because politics, business and religion put certain unavoidable constraints and impositions on people in society) is, in our life today. Politics can cause a war within or between nations, business failure can shake up the basic foundations of our life and religious enmities can spread like wildfire to wipe out an entire race. The dangers of all three often come together to cause men to become wilder than wild animals. See for example what's happening in Italy.

We all fear a nuclear war which can wipe out the entire human race. But what about this trilogy of human duress which can combine to become as deadly as a nuclear war? We've seen nations in our own time shattered and burnt down to smithereens because of a combination of the three human concerns - politics, business and religion - the latter to be taken in its broader meaning to include its elements such as ethical beliefs, concept of freedom etc. We see these three areas of human concern continuously pulling countries apart, causing tremendous strains on the people and causing them to break into partisan groups.

Yet, the torchbearers and leaders in all the three areas of human concern seemed not to be aware of the dangers they can create when the tensions in all three areas combine.

Let's take the Malaysian case. The political divide in the country is coterminous with the religious divide - UMNO vis-a-vis.
PAS. UMNO has formed its affiliates through Barisan National ( the National Front) while PAS has affiliated with Parti Keadilan and DAP to form Perikatan. The political and religious divides are clear enough. Is there also a business divide? Where do some of the more prominent tycoons and businessmen stand? Certainly many are in MCA, a member of the Barisan Nasional. But DAP certainly has a number of them on its side, from all racial groups. thus making the business divide quite clear. Religion does not seem to be playing a major role except for the Malay components of the two major contending forces in Malaysian politics. They are both Islam but their views differ far enough to break them up into two groups with different Imams even when praying in the same mosque. That was some time ago and I don't know whether it still happens now , openly or in secret. For more than fifty years the UMNO Malays and PAS Malays have never seemed to be able to settle their differences except for some brief period of political agreement and cooperation, when PAS did join the Barisan Nasional.

The stress and strains the Malays are going through because of this divide are not so obvious. But I'm sure they are being felt by members of the affliates in the opposing poitical entities. Business and functional relationships in their everyday life keep the Malays together to the extent that we sometimes only see the religious leaders bearing down on each others while the followers just smile or even laugh.

Can the situation ever be improved and the apparent conflict be resolved? The question, I think, is becoming more pressing as the younger Malays begin to question why two groups professing the same religion should be enemies. They are not even divided in their sectarian belief or mazhab since both adhere to the Sunnah walJamaah. Their differences are founded only in terms of minor issues that do not and cannot erode their aqidah such as on the question of creating an Islamic State, each party having its own interpretation of the term, the adoption of Hudud Laws (which only affects the Muslims), the acceptance or non-acceptance (haram) of interests in the banking system and business interactions, the covering of the head, face and hands (the aurat) for the womenfolk to be totally or partially accepted, etc. These differences seem to be fizzling out as the young Malays learn more about Islam, realize that some non-Muslim celebrities are finding it more comforting to their souls and embracing it. They are, therefore, coming back to the teachings with greater conviction.

More significantly the pressure of modern living in terms of business transactions, professional work and everyday life style seems to demand more of the young Malays' time than the obligations of their religion. The consequences of failing in their everyday endeavor to make a living will be more painful and obvious than the failure to perform a prayer or fasting in the month of Ramadhan, especially since they can cover up the failure when unintentional through late performance (kadha'). These and other arguments make religion a harmonizing and comforting socio-psychological factor to fall back on when life becomes pretty tough. As such they do not allow the religious concern to place a divide between them and their relatives and friends, which at one time happened in Malaysia.

We see, therefore, a possibility of business ( a general term for earning a living) becoming a bridge between the political and religious divide. In business we do not really care who the business partner is so long as we have a mutual interest and that our transaction can be mutually beneficial. Business interest can overcome other interests in many cases. If we accept this principle, politics can then be a means of self-identification in the social matrix of behavioral choices, taking a stand where necessary and giving support to a popular leader of our choice, while religion can provide a guideline for ethical choice and standard, guiding our spiritual growth without gross intrusion on our business life. In as far as Islam is concerned, it also encourages business. A saying of Prophet Muhammad SAW (pbuh) stated that nine tenth of our sustenance comes from business.

Can this thought or principle be practiced at the national and international level? I think it can provided we first take pains to study the relationship between the trilogy of human duress as I call it, and make sure that their destructive forces do not combine to cause a war between people, groups of people, racial groups and between nations. If that is allowed to happen the trilogy can become as dangerous as a nuclear blast. Politics and business can cause tension between people of the same race and religion. Couldn't the common religion be used to overcome political and business conflicts? When political and religious factors cause the tension, couldn't common business interests be maximiized to redice the strain? All national leaders and statesmen should, I think, take a look at the dangers and potentials of the trilogy and develop strategies that can bring peace to a nation and between nations by optimizing on their integrative forces and minimizing their disruptive tendencies.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Payoffs don't pay - No Favors Required to get Govt Contract.

I am sure the business people in Malaysia, especially those in the construction business, will be most excited to hear the PM saying that they don't have to pay or give favors to secure government contracts, tenders and concessions. Datuk Seri Najib blandly said that they don't have to pay to conduct business with the goverment and such belief or perception should be dispelled.

I say that businessmen will be excited about this because dispelling the belief can work both ways -- stem out corruption or delay the work to be undertaken by government, terribly.

Yes, if businessmen stopped giving payoffs and offering favors in order to get a contract from government, corruptipn will cease. It is the attractive offerer which creates the receiver unless the party offering the contract, approving the tender or the cocession makes a demamd before giving the approval. When there is no offer the approval had to be given to the businessman most qualified for the job to be ubdertaken. If a demand was made before the approval, then a clear case of corruption is already committed ab initio.

A bribery offer is usually made by a businessman who isn't confident of getting a job based on offering 'the best for the least' in his tender proposal. The grand price quoted in the tender is made after including all costs. including the bribe to be given out of course, in the tender prosal. It is for this reason that the prices quoted in tenders are often rediculously exorbitant. If the cost of bribery had not been included in the tender proposal and had to be paid from the profit margin expected to be made my the contractor, it is a sure invitation to running a loss. Are businessmen prepared to do that? It may lead to the case of unfinished jobs and abandoned projects to ovoid serious cost overrun and perhaps bankcruptcy.

Those than are the dangers of not making allowance for paying bribes or payoffs. If no payoffs or favors is offerred at all to the party awarding the contract, tender or concession, it may also be the last contract the businessman might get. There would be others who are willing and prepared to pay, waiting to get the job. These businessmen would have included the bribery costs in their cost evaluation for the tender.

Delays in work implementation can be caused by many factors such as difficulties in getting the supply of work and building materials, incurring cost overruns, delays in getting progress payments, and the ultimate inability of the contractor to finance the work. Such problems on the part of the contractor can be due to all forms of delays on the part of the government, each compounding his problems. A delay in the initial start of work can be due to getting all the documentation ready and the approval to start work. All of the above involve continuous interaction between the contractor and the government. Thus at any point any delay by the party responsible in the governemt for giving the approval can cause serous problems and delay for the contractor which inevitably will lead to cost increases. Can the contractor accept this or isn't better to give some titbits all the way to get the things that you wants quite promptly. Otherwise the little delays will all add up to a huge implementation
shortfall that is not uncommon in the government.

The issue here is can the government just say"stop giving money and favours in order to get government contracts, tenders
and concessions." Businessmen will just be happy to do that but won't the government agencies responsible for issuing the contracts. evaluating the tenders, giving approval to start work and various other approval certificates before the work can be completed. approving payments etc. suddenly play cool and take their time to give the necessary approval such that all work will be slowed down? Businessmen talk about paying "grease money" to get things go faster and smoother. How can these be stopped as well aside from seeing to it that tenders, contracts and concessions are all evaluated, approved and issues without seeking some payments or kickbacks that we here generally call corruption?

A deeper examination of the way major works are done from the word go to their completion must be done to see where the payment of "grease money' might be involved aside from some commissions or kickbacks that really involve substantial amounts. Corruption is not a once-over thing in getting a government job done. It can happen all along the way. Whilst the MACC is doing a fine job to get the culprit taking huge payoffs from major government projects, many smaller payoffs might be missed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mind of the State

(At the request of a friend and for the fun of a digression, my entry this time takes the form of a poem. It's about political development in the country but focusses on nothing in particular. Just let the images invite your mind to wander and you might get what I mean or feel something arising from your own imagination. Don't hold me for it.)

Mind of the State
(the pictures may help to stimulate your imagination)

The state of one's mind is no one else's business
but the mind of the State keeps us all anxious;
for it runs the ship with its rowdy loads
of different creeds with different needs or greed,
each croaking in democratic cacophony like drunken toads.

The State is but a corpus of different minds
brought together by history and Constitutional binds;
in prosperity nobody cares who does what and who rules the sun.
so long as my fortune is safe and life's a bundle of fun:
but comes a depression- your excesses are my obsession.

Since the rain never falls evenly in everyone's garden
the toads begin their throaty croaks to unleash their angry burden;
the giant Bifo Marinus becomes the envy of all anuras
a foreign breed grown prosperous in the major ponds and rivers,
while others though indigenous live in abject weariness.

In such a turmoil the leaders go bonkers,
protect the rich and the poor will tear up their fenders,
champion the poor and the rich will abandon ship
scoot with the loot and the State will drift into the deep:
like so many countries where no one can peacefully sleep.

Thank heaven in this blessed land of multiple breed,
the toads and frogs do fight but won't each other bleed,
It rains a lot but the water tanks often run dry,
for the mind of the State is oft upturned to the sky:
where the silver clouds and golden rainbow lie.

9. 12, 2010

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Welcome December Twenty Ten

A Maal Hijarah Procession

Well folks, here we are in December again, December twenty ten, and the first week is gone. The year is coming to a close and a brand new one will begin - twenty eleven. Isn't that easier to say and remember than 'the year twenty thousand and eleven'? We enter the second decade of the 21st century. OMG. How fast time flashes by!

An Imagery from Chap Goh Meh Festivity

Three important events await us in Malaysia - the Maal Hijrah on the 7th, Christmas, and of course the New Year. A Muslim event, a Christian, and an international festive day. The Aidil Fitri and Aidil Adha, the Chap Goh Meh, the Deepavali, the Gawai etc had just been celebrated a few months back. Hey, even Thaipusam had been made into a public holiday for Malaysians. We certainly have a good number of public holidays in this lovely country. When our next door neighbors celebrate we all celebrate too and that is the secret of our happy relationship and the foundation of our national unity. When we can feast, have fun and celebrate our good fortune together, we'll certainly remain together no matter whatever else happens.

A Thaipusam Spectacle

But wouldn't it be more meaningful if the younger Malaysians are acquainted with the full background story behind every one of the festive days that we celebrate? What is the Maal Hijrah about. for example, or the Chap Go Meh, the Thaipusam, the Gawai, the Ponggal, etc.? These festive days are not as widely celebrated nor in as grand a way as the more famous Hariraya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Christmas and the New Year. The shops and the towns and cities do not get lighted up and decorated as they do for the more famus occasions. Even the radio, the TV and the news media do not take pains to explain the full meaning and implications of the lesser known fetivals and as such the celebration is less widespread.

Only the business sector will do its best to promote and highlight every exploitable occasion to capitalize on the sales of relevant merchandise. Lately, Valentine Day, Mothers Day, Fathers Day etc seem to have become a day of generous spending and expensive treats. The price of red roses can go up to RM15 for one pretty bloom on Valentine day while the Velentine and other greeting cards have become a rip-roaring business on the appropriate occasion with prices going up to RM50 and more.
The festive atmosphere created by the business sector is most impressive.

All at the expense of the more religously oriented festivals such as the Maal Hijrah, Chap Go Meh, All Saints Days and many others as observed by the followers of different religion. The business sector seems to be leading the show rather than the
religious organizations involved. This has the effect of not only deemphasizing the significance of the occasion from a religious point of view but also turning such an occasion into a business promotion exercise. In this regard even the more
celebrated festive days like hariraya, CNY, Christmas and the New Year have lost much of their religious significance with more emphasis being given to their social relevance. This may not be a healthy trend for the younger Malaysians in terms of their spiritual development.

Whatever it is, December certainly holds out a lot of memories and hopes for all of us. We've fond memories of twenty ten to savour and a rising pile of hopes and expectation for twenty eleven to be excited about. So let us welcome December, the last lap in the twenty ten race for progress and prosperity, although one week is about gone even before I get to write this note.