We live in transitional times. The loss of one of the country’s few statesmen and genuine public figures is a blow to reforming this country’s abject political culture and crumbling national institutions. Karpal Singh was at the vanguard of the public interest to which he dedicated his life and from which he never retreated despite official persecution.
His conviction this year on a charge of sedition for his considered legal opinion on a point of constitutional law was greeted with incredulity by the international community. With dignity, Karpal took the court’s verdict on the chin, the hallmark of a formidable mind and spirit. It was a quality which earned him deep respect, something which sadly and for too long, cannot be said of the Malaysian judiciary. To his eternal credit, he continued the fight within the compromised legal system. His faith in the rule of law sustained his work in the face of chronic calumny and mendacity. Truth will out.
With the passing of Karpal Singh and Irene Fernandez, the country has lost two public defenders within weeks of each other. The pall of politics now looms overhead more forebodingly than before, threatening to snuff out any light of reform on the horizon.
But it is at such transitional moments that the magnitude of one’s lifelong vocation becomes clear, when the need for someone - a new generation – to step into the breech becomes blindingly obvious. As with the need for national renewal, so too the need for elders to impress upon the younger that public life – with all its connotations of inclusivity, regardless of class or creed – are worth a fig.
Some Malaysians are now wondering aloud about the kind of country they are leaving their children. They can scarcely believe that defenders
of the public interest whom they had come to rely on to say and do the right thing for them are no longer.
There is a need for new role models. Our time to do the right thing is now. – Jason Tan
Human-tech problems fixed. The April 2014 issue of The B-Side is now out. Download now on your iPad or Android tablets.
When we headlined this month’s cover, ‘Chicken and duck talk’, in reference to then-recent sacrifice of a chicken and and use of a live duck as melodramatic political protest, little did we know what was to come in a matter of days.
In the beginning of March, when this edition of The B-Side went live, the new season of the national theatre of the absurd had just opened with the neverending Anwar Ibrahim sodomy trial. This expedited hearing was quickly followed by the conviction of his lawyer and fellow MP, Karpal Singh, on sedition charges (for offering a legal opinion on the 2008 Perak constitutional crisis).
These occurred against the backdrop of the so-called Kajang Plan (a.k.a. by-election, scheduled for March 23).
And then Flight MH370 disappeared.
In the space of a week, it became clear that this issue’s cover headline was prescient. ‘Chicken and duck talk’ is a Cantonese phrase that refers to people who simply cannot understand each other, despite speaking the same language.
Rightly or not, the Malaysian government has been criticised by the international community for what is seen as its foggy response to the MH370 incident.
While we cannot comment on a search and rescue operation of unprecedented scale, it is crystalline that there is a gap in the expectations of the international community – especially of its journalists – and of Malaysian officialdom.
The former expect those who hold public office to respond to questions by providing clear, accurate and timely information. The latter, on the other hand, are used to sheltering under a cloak of security and secrecy laws that have encouraged a Malaysian culture that alternates between banal incuriosity and prurience.
But if there is such a culture gap between Malaysia and the rest of the world, there is also a widening trust-deficit between the country’s political class and its own citizens. It is apparent to Malaysians that politicking has superseded the business of governance, at massive opportunity cost to the public interest and its institutions, not least its emergency services.
As this is being written, the torrent of public support for ‘MH370’ continues to occupy the background space. Like politically correct sentiments, they feel void of real emotion; the ‘right’ thing to say, platitudes to the hyper-mediated issue du jour.
It is impossible to empathise with the families and friends of the missing without a deep and abiding commitment to our common humanity; to the thankless task of genuine nation-building.
We can never hope to understand the events that happen to us, only respond to them and rise to the occasion. We wish the families and friends of the passengers and crew of MH370 love and kindness in their hour of need. – Jason Tan
The B-Side March issue is updated with an interactive feature on the MH370: who said what when, in videos, illustrations and sound. Download for free now!
The things ministers say about the haze: a fairy tale for the hopeful.
While we wait for change in the kind of news we get, and how it is reported, we thought to speed things up with these fairy tale press conferences below.
The Malaysian Minister for Natural Resources and the Environment, G. Palanivel, on the ‘innocuously named haze’.
What are your thoughts on the haze?
The Asean public health hazard that we know as the innocuously named ‘haze’ will continue to recur for the foreseeable future. This is because the oil palm industry is embedded in the Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean economies.
Indeed – while Malaysia and Indonesia are host to vast tracts of oil palm plantations and hundreds of thousands of smallholders or family-based growers whose livelihoods depend on the oleo-chemical sector, Singapore hosts the headquarters of integrated, multinational agribusiness companies.
Of course, some Malaysian conglomerates too are multinational in nature. Some of these multinational companies own the entire production chain of palm oil, from plantations, mills, refineries and processing plants, to product-manufacturing and distribution.
Some of them are also involved in commodities-trading that set the market prices that these multinational companies pay to the hundreds of thousands of smallholders who produce the palm oil that contribute to the national Gross Domestic Product of their respective countries.
Malaysia and Indonesia together produce some 80 per cent of the world’s palm oil.
According to some studies, smallholders in Indonesia and Malaysia account for 35 to 40 percent of planted oil palm, and as much as 33 per cent of the output.
Are the incomes of these smallholders commensurate with their contribution to the GDP?
Socio-economic rights are something the government is studying seriously.
What we are here to discuss now is the relationship between palm oil and the innocuously named ‘haze’.
Oil palm, being the agricultural commodity that is quickest to grow and most versatile in its usage, is a common ingredient that is used in everything from the global processed food industry, to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Therefore, its growth – and that of the innocuously named ‘haze’ – is ultimately driven by consumer demand and ‘modern’ lifestyles.
The palm oil that is used in manufactured goods is not the same as the nutritious raw palm oil that is obtained from pressed, fresh-fruit bunches, which have a limited shelf-life.
Processed palm oil undergoes an industrial process whereby it is cheaply refined, bleached and deodorised in vast quantities to become an industrial product that can be traded, exported and used in manufacturing plants anywhere in the world.
In conclusion, the regional public health hazard that we currently know as the ‘haze’ is ultimately an issue of competing land-use between exploitable ‘natural resources’ for the shareholders of the global industrial economy, and a natural heritage that really belongs to the children of the world.
There are issues of ethical financing, land rights, native rights, socio-economic rights, sustainability and environmental destruction, global trade, and more, within this thing that we call the ‘haze’.
Once we see these, we will be better able to prevent future economic and environmental disasters like the ‘haze’ that now threatens the whole of the Asean region on a regular basis.
What can or are the government agencies doing about the situation
A point to note is that multinational companies now outstrip national governments in their ability to regulate trans-boundary crime, and that NGO-multinational initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and Sustainable Soy, for that matter, must live up to their promise of transforming the global market of industrial commodities.
I regret to say that the government agencies of both Indonesia and Malaysia declared last year that they were going to pursue their own standards of ‘sustainable’ palm oil.
Can we do the right thing?
We live in hope.
Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry, Mustapa Mohamad, offers his point of view
From the nation’s trade and industry point of view what are your thoughts?
I have to concede that the palm oil industry is hard to transform into a sustainable one, because it is a structural part of the Malaysian and global economy.
Palm oil is part of the comparative advantage that we have over the West; oil palm is the crop that grows fastest of all agricultural commodities, and the palm oil alone comprises 8 to 9 per cent of all Malaysian exports.
It is a crucial part of our balance of trade.
What do you feel is an appropriate course of action to aid in the sustainability of the industry?
What needs to be done now is to factor in the cost of ‘externalities’ such as environmental damage, which are not taken into account in the global pricing of the commodity between ‘willing buyer’ and ‘willing seller’.
Maybe I can give an example of what I mean: let’s say I want to buy a car, and someone wants to sell me a car, or a fleet of cars. We agree on a price, the deal is done. This is an efficient economic transaction, both parties get what they want.
But when I use the car, it adds to the traffic jam and pollution, and commuters on buses are late for work and suffer bad air quality.
The jam and pollution are ‘external’ to the economic transaction because I don’t pay for the costs of traffic jams and pollution; they are not factored into the price of the car.
The haze is like that. There are people who want to sell palm oil, and others who want to buy it as cheaply as possible.
But the price paid for crude palm oil does not take into account the social and environmental costs of cheap production using, for all intents and purposes, legal arson.
And because the transaction is ‘globalised’, its ‘external’ effects are also trans-boundary: we feel those ‘external’ effects when poor Indonesians burn the land to clear it cheaply to produce what corporations want to buy, at the price these corporations are willing to pay for it.
Some multinationals based in developed countries are willing to pay more for crude palm oil, because the consumers in those markets demand more of their multinationals.
This higher price should benefit smallholders, who would then no longer feel the need to.
However, companies based in China and India must also be willing to do the same, otherwise there will be an uneven trading field – though I doubt their consumers think very hard about sustainability.
And why should they? The West has, after all, been living it up for the longest time and consuming all the world’s resources!
Now, it’s the East’s turn to ‘enjoy life’, mother nature be damned.
Is this fair?
This is only human nature. So, the oleo-chemical sector, like all sectors that have been ‘globalised’, must be regulated well.
Only fundamentalist neo-liberals still believe in the ‘magic’ of self-regulated markets.
Look at what happened to the global economy when we were led into believing that the financial sector would benefit from ‘light touch’ regulation.
There is no such thing as an unregulated market in anything.
Public money is still being used to bail out private banks in the UK, Europe, and the US. Poor people are not able to handle ‘austerity’ measures as well as others.
On the subject of regulations, what can be done about trans-boundary environmental crimes?
The only way to stop trans-boundary environmental crime such as the ‘haze’ is for the companies that perpetrate them to suffer ‘reputational damage’, as has happened to the financial sector in the West.
Virgin rainforests are still being lost to fire, which are burnt on the pretext of planting economic crops such as oil palm.
The high economic value of tropical timber makes virgin rainforests very lucrative to some short-term businessmen.
However, we must respect the biodiversity that rainforests give life to, because their economic value cannot be calculated on a balance sheet.
Economic life is built on human life, which is part of nature.
The Malaysian government is committed to fairness and justice, and equal opportunity for all its people, regardless of race, religion or creed – and even regardless of political party membership.
You have been reading the Headlines of Hope, a fairy tale of our time. Published in the July 2013 issue of The B-Side.
‘Babe! Babe!’ quacks Ferdinand the duck, ‘it’s a catastrophe, it’s apocalyptic, it’s indescribable.’ The sight of Ferdinand, more frantic than usual, greets babe as soon as he gets home into the farmyard.
‘Calm down, Ferdinand. Tell me what happened,’ says the little sheep pig. But Ferdinand is beyond calm and he flaps his wings wildly as he runs around in circles.
‘It’s Rooster,’ says a deep gruff voice. Babe looks round to see Rex the male sheepdog (and Fly’s mate) pad up to him. ‘He was taken when you were away. If I wasn’t so deaf, I would have heard them and stopped them,’ Rex growls, his anger directed partly at the Rooster thieves and partly to his disability. ‘Don’t blame yourself, Rex,’ comes the slow, rumbling voice of Horse. ‘None of us heard them.’
‘But that is not the worst of it,’ screams Ferdinand. He tugs at something with his bill. Babe trots up to see and he gasps in horror. It is a newspaper, and on it is a picture of a group of ugly, fat men with faces twisted in hate. But that’s not what shocks Babe. The thing that so horrifies the piglet is the image at the feet of the ugly men; it is the mangled body of Rooster, his blood smeared all over a banner.
‘How could they do such a thing,’ says Fly, ‘to kill an animal for no reason. The beasts.’
By this time Ferdinand is several levels past hysterical. He flaps around screeching that they may be back to take and kill more animals. ‘Stop it, Ferdinand,’ shouts Babe. ‘They won’t get you, I promise. I’ll stay with you all night. We’ll get them.’
Babe kindly nuzzles Ferdinand with his snout. If only he felt as confident as he sounded.
– An excerpt from ‘Babe III: The Pig Detective’ by Azmi Sharom. Read the full story in the March issue of The B-Side, coming soon!
Illustrated by Jun Kit
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