Are We Being Served by Half-Past-Six Ministers?

By Kee Thuan Chye

Do we have half-past-six ministers running the country? Well, from the utterances of at least three ministers in the last few days, that seems to be so.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Shahidan Kassim put his foot in his mouth when he declared in Parliament last Monday that the electricity and water bills incurred by the prime minister’s official residence in Putrajaya last year – amounting to a staggering RM2.55 million – was among the lowest in the world. And how did he come to this conclusion? Did he make comparisons with other countries?

No, he came to this conclusion based on his own “observation”!

Woooh! RM2.55 million of taxpayers’ money spent and that’s what we get? A personal observation by one of our top public servants that it’s relatively peanuts?

Asked by Opposition MPs for comparisons with the utility bills of the residences of other countries’ leaders, he said he did not have them. “If you want the specifics, you will need to give me time to collect the details,” he said. Which clearly showed he was simply tembak-ing (shooting in the dark).

But how can a minister simply tembak? Has he no regard for the intelligence of his fellow MPs and, worse, that of the rakyat? How can he say the utility bills are among the lowest in the world – in the world, mind you, don’t play-play! – without scientific evidence to back up his claim? Did he pass Form 3 or not?

What also drew derisive laughter that was so loud it could have been heard in Putrajaya was his justification for his observed conclusion. He said the utility bills were relatively low because the country’s top leaders practised the “frugal system”! He even added, “I believe the frugal spending system implemented in Seri Perdana is the best.”

Er … Shahidan, would you have any facts and figures to explain what this “frugal system” is? And why you say it is “the best”?

Does this frugality extend to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s overseas travel expenses in 2011, which amounted to RM10.1 million, and his 10-day visit to London, New York and Washington, DC, in May 2012, which cost taxpayers RM2.9 million?

Is it frugal to spend RM2.9 million on a 10-day trip?

Does it extend to the utility bills of Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin last year being as high as RM964,722?

In the first place, do we need an official residence for the prime minister as big as 17 hectares and that of his deputy as big as 7.3 hectares? Whom are we trying to impress? Even the White House, residence of the president of the United States of America, is smaller than both, at 7.2 hectares.

In view of all of the above, if Shahidan cannot tell us what he means by the so-called “frugal system”, what bullshit is he saying?

Meanwhile, his Cabinet colleague, Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, also sounded like he was talking bullshit last Monday when he defended Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s demolition work at the Sri Muneswarar Kaliyaman Temple. He said the demolition was part of the Government’s plan to “beautify” the temple!

How does demolition reconcile with beautification? Aren’t they actions that are poles apart? Besides, there had been no previous official mention of beautification until now.

More important, is it right for the Government to go into a temple and demolish it because it wants to beautify it? Shouldn’t it discuss the beautification idea with the temple authorities first, and see if the latter are amenable to it? How can the Government simply bulldoze its way into the temple and do what it likes?

What’s the real intention behind the demolition, Adnan? Is it not to get a part of the land the temple is sited on for the developer Hap Seng Consolidated Bhd so that the latter could build something there?

If it is, why don’t you just say so? If it’s legal for Hap Seng to take that bit of land because it owns it, by all means the law must follow its course. Then you should call a spade a spade and say why KL City Hall acted as it did. What would you have to fear if you are following the law? Why must you hide behind the façade of “beautification”?

Furthermore, why must you profess to be an expert on Hindu temples by declaring that the Sri Muneswarar Kaliyaman structure is merely a shrine, not a temple – because, so you said, proper Hindu practices were not incorporated into the construction? The temple was built 100 years ago; you want to dispute the practices that went into its construction now?

In any case, if you say it’s merely a shrine, and therefore of little consequence, why bother to beautify it?

One other thing, Adnan. In saying that you wanted to turn the temple into a tourist attraction by making it like “the four-faced Buddha in Thailand”, you were clearly being insensitive. If you needed to make a comparison, you should have found a Hindu equivalent, even though the four-faced Buddha is the Thai representation of the Hindu god Brahma. Not many people know that and may therefore misunderstand. How would you have felt if someone had made a comparison between a Malaysian Muslim mosque and a Christian church elsewhere? Would that person have had hell to pay for doing that? Would you have perhaps told that person to emigrate?

No wonder even the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waythamoorthy has come out to chide you. He says you have “no business in interpreting what constitutes a shrine or temple”. And rightly so.

He adds, pointedly, “As a federal minister, he should respect the feelings and sensitivities of Hindus, instead of justifying an unconscionable act by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall.” You should be grateful he didn’t tell you to emigrate.

Take my advice, Adnan. Next time, tell it like it is. Don’t try and play politics. We know you and your political party are scared of losing Indian support, but if you try to hide the real intention with something that sounds untrue, that’s even worse.

Come to think of it, why do some Indians still want to support your arrogant government? Why did many of them vote for Barisan Nasional (BN) at the last general election? Perhaps it’s time they considered the better option.

Your colleague Jamil Khir Baharom, another minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, is the third official who has given BN a bad name.

Last Monday, in Parliament, he appeared not to know the difference between the 20-point agreement that is supposed to protect Sabah’s rights and interests when it joined Malaysia in 1963, and the 10-point solution that Najib’s Cabinet formulated in 2011 to allow Christians in Sabah and Sarawak to use the word ‘Allah’ for God.

Jamil reportedly said the 10-point solution was the one agreed upon in 1963! He had to be corrected by Opposition MPs.

After being corrected, he went on to confuse everyone by saying that the word ‘Allah’ was exclusive to Muslims in Malaysia according to State-level Islamic laws and that the matter should no longer be disputed after the Court of Appeal’s ruling made last month. He did not shed any light on how this would affect the Christians of Sabah and Sarawak, much to the frustration of Opposition MPs who wanted him to clearly state the Government’s current stand.

When reporters later asked him to state the stand, his pathetic reply was “I have already explained. Don’t confuse me more.” Hahaha! This means he was indeed confused!

If ministers can be so confused and unsure about Government matters, how did they get to be ministers in the first place? That’s something Najib will have to account for.

He will also have to ensure that his ministers are not lax and that they don’t say stupid things, as they have been doing even before the last few days. In Parliament today are among the brightest and sharpest Opposition MPs. They include Rafizi Ramli, Tian Chua, Gobind Singh Deo, Nurul Izzah Anwar, Tony Pua, N. Surendran, Khalid Samad, Liew Chin Tong, Zairil Khir Johari, Ong Kian Ming … and I’m not even mentioning the old warhorses.

Najib’s ministers will have to measure up to them. If they can’t, they will be laughed out of the House. Even worse, at the next general election, they might be dropped from contesting or be duly voted out.

I don’t suppose we’d miss them.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.