Friday, February 28, 2014

Anwar evades Selangor water questions



COMMENT It’s an experience to be back in the minority. It reminds me of when I first joined PKR, around 2007, when the party had just the one seat in Parliament. Nobody listened to us much then, but we wrote what we thought anyway.

I harbour no illusions that I am leading some sort of quest that will lead to the downfall of any individual or party, or change the course of events.

If nothing changes, Anwar Ibrahim will almost certainly become state assemblyman for Kajang in a little over a month - that’s for the people of Kajang to decide. There is every possibility that he will be Selangor menteri besar soon after - that’s for a rather more complicated set of people to decide. I am not among them.

Just as in 2007, the likelihood of successfully changing things is not the only thing that makes us speak out. Whatever we thought of our odds, we kept on trying to tell the truth - to call things as we see them.

I think in this regard, PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli also taught us a great deal. Even though there was little to no chance that Wanita Umno chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil would be prosecuted for corruption, or that the money siphoned out through the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) would be returned, Rafizi pressed on.

He taught us, via admirable example, the merits of persistent tenacity in the pursuit of exposing injustice, and his relentlessness put me in mind of a small animal that bites you hard and just refuses to let go, no matter how vigorously you try to shake it off. We can only hope to be half as dedicated.

This article is a brief follow up to Anwar’s responses on questions regarding Selangor’s water industry. On a related note, it will also briefly comment on the nature of political discourse in Malaysia.

Seeking a simple answer

I appreciate Malaysiakini’s efforts in following up what looks for now to be an entirely unsexy aspect of the Kajang saga, what with our attention being distracted by multiple independent candidates, never-ending drama and so on.

Earlier this week, Anwar was asked to comment on an article I wrote, in which I asked if the next menteri besar of Selangor could:

a) Promise to continue the state government’s efforts in reclaiming control over Selangor’s water industry from private corporations.

b) Promise not to offer a higher price (to any individual water concessionaire) to buy over Selangor’s water industry back from the water concessionaires than the most recent offer made by the Selangor state government, as of December 2013.

c) Promise that any contract given to a private entity to run Selangor’s water industry after the takeover be made through a completely open and transparent tender.

The reasons I asked for these commitments were described in my article.

Anwar’s response is worth scrutinising:

PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim has rubbished insinuations that a higher price would be paid to water concessionaires in Selangor’s takeover bid of water companies if PKR's ‘Kajang Move’ is successful.

He said that there is ‘no basis’ for such insinuations and that he has not been involved in the negotiations for the water concession takeover. Asked if there would be a higher price offered to concessionaires should he become menteri besar, he said: “(The price) is a negotiation. Why bring this in?

“I was not privy to the discussions except through the report submitted (to the party) by (MB Abdul) Khalid Ibrahim... There was never a counter proposal from us,” said Anwar.

He added that the claims were made by ‘desperate people’.

He was asked to comment on an article by by former consultant to the Selangor government Nathaniel Tan who asked if the new MB can guarantee that a higher payout will not be made to the water concessionaires.

In the commentary published by Malaysiakini, Tan pointed out that a major shareholder of water concessionaire Splash is tycoon Wan Azmi Wan Hamzah through his company, The Sweet Water Alliance Sdn Bhd. Wan Azmi, Tan noted, is also on the board of directors for PKR-linked think-tank Institut Rakyat.

“To ask such a question there must be basis (to it). I question why Malaysiakini would publish such a thing, I am really surprised,” Anwar said after a small gathering in Kampung Sungai Kantan, Kajang. “You should also ask Khalid (about) this.”

We will discuss briefly the more emotional aspects of this response later, but let us try to tackle the more important, substantive parts first.

Less than straight answer

According to the article, amidst all the hubris, Anwar seems to have made only one actual comment that is actually related to the question: “The price is a negotiation.”

How disappointing.

Let us try to understand this less than straight answer. This means he did not deny (nor confirm, to be fair) that a higher price might be paid to water concessionaires should he become menteri besar.

The comment in fact suggests that the price may be further negotiated after there is a new menteri besar. Seeing that water concessionaires have consistently refused consecutively larger and larger offers thus far, would further negotiation not strongly suggest the possibility of higher offers?

The rest of Anwar’s comments seem to indicate that journalists - and by extension the rakyat - have no right or basis to ask about an issue involving some RM9 billion (at least) of taxpayer monies. This strikes me as strange.

Anwar and friends seem to like Malaysiakini well enough when they print his scathing criticisms of BN. A statesman understands that the media should not beholden to anyone. A politician is happy with media when it praises him, and derides media when he perceives it as being critical of him.

Anwar seemed to react as if he were under attack, when there is no reason to. The question is a simple one - one that a clear conscience should have no problem addressing without fuss.

Surely, as the man everyone is talking about as being the next menteri besar of Selangor, he would have an opinion regarding what is by far the biggest financial transaction Selangor will be involved in for a long time to come?

There would be nothing wrong, for instance, for Anwar to state that he believed that the water concessionaires were in fact being undervalued by the Khalid administration - if that is in fact what he believed.

If however, he believed that the water concessionaires were fairly valued by Khalid, then he should also have no problem stating as such, and making the promises outlined at the top of the article.

Such commitments would surely allay the fears of those few who fear that Anwar and his followers are starting to resemble the likes of BN a little too closely.

If the tables were turned, and BN was looking to replace one stingy menteri besar with a menteri besar that had some connections with tycoons involved in big transactions with the state, would Pakatan and its supporters think it unreasonable to merely ask the questions above?

Immature political discourse

It is also worth noting that Anwar seldom loses his temper. For the most part, even in the face of some of the most salacious, unwarranted, and sometimes downright rude questions from the press, he has been seen to keep perfectly calm.

Anwar’s reaction in this particular case occasions a brief discussion regarding the level of political discourse in Malaysia.

Unfortunately, the habit of responding to political developments and political commentary emotionally is quite widespread.

I remember the world’s outrage when in the aftermath of 9/11, George W Bush so brazenly declared to the world: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

Such an attitude can only retard our progress towards political maturity.

I accept that there will always be people who will place emotion and loyalty above reason, and I fully accept that that is their right.

At the same time, if the only response to criticism is emotional personal attacks, then I confess that this suggests that the criticism is accurate, rather than off the mark (the best trolls have always understood that to get a reaction, you really have to hit a nerve).

The pattern is prevalent: when someone is no longer able to discuss or argue the points in an objective manner, the very first thing they do is try and smear your credibility, motivations and so on. That is their right, but I must admit, it gets terribly boring.

Of course, many who criticise Anwar are guilty of the same. Being critical of him certainly does not indicate agreement with his many other critics and their arguments - which so far have included being infantile, perverse, egoistic, and almost senile.

It’s convenient to lump all anti-Anwar sentiments together, but I suppose it is usually the minority who bothers to actually read all the words objectively.

I understand how some Pakatan Rakyat supporters get very emotional when they feel their leader is under attack. I also understand that they might feel that by extension, it is their very dreams of an Umno-free Malaysia that these ‘attackers’ are stomping on.

I understand, because those are my dreams too. I have dedicated just the slightest bit more than average of my adult life and (what passes for) my career in pursuit of this goal, and the thought of it slipping further away saddens me at least as much as anyone else.

It does not, however, sadden me to the point of blindness. Conmen always prey on those who feel an emptiness in their lives, deftly weaving words and promises that offer us that most precious lifeline: hope. Too often, behind those sweet words lie only greed and exploitation.

Anwar mentions desperate people. I will state without hesitation that I am, indeed, desperate. I am a little too embarrassed to state most of the things I am desperate for, but where Malaysia is concerned, I can certainly say this: I will not let my desperation be manipulated.

I will not let the amount of sweat, blood and tears that we have put in to removing BN compromise objectivity or good judgement - least of all if doing so will only result in letting exactly the same things we hate about BN creep up behind us. It is important that we see with our eyes, not just feel with our hearts.

If what we see tells us we have to find a new direction, then let’s start looking for one. It doesn’t matter whether there are 10 million of us or just 10. What matters is knowing that any foundation we build without real integrity will only crumble back to dust. We’ve endured long journeys in search of such integrity before, and we can endure them.

Nathaniel Tan

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