Thursday, 26 March 2009

Leadership Concerns

"Don't be too literal about campaign promises," said Greenberg. "There is a lot of scope for governing, if the people think you're acting in the country's long-term interests and that you're working for them."

Stan Greenberg is one of America's most experienced pollsters and author of the new book, "Dispatches from the War Room" — an insider's account about how the world leaders for whom he polled handled their crashes/slipups.

I picked the above from Thomas L. Friedman’s “Secrets of a pollster” (IHT Online, March 26) which provided some particularly insightful points for true national leaders to consider.

(Despots and tyrants are exempted.)

Friedman’s article was written in the context of President Barrack Obama’s and his handling of America’s potential recovery from one of the most debilitating economic downturn ever, but much of conclusion could be applied in our case.

In case you can’t be bothered to read the article in full , here is Friedman's conclusion on the "leadership lessons":

“You can't be too honest in describing big problems, too bold in offering big solutions, too humble in dealing with big missteps, too forward in re-telling your story or too gutsy in speaking the previously unspeakable.”

All these points has to be read with their examples to make full sense, but I am particularly drawn to the one on (now ousted and former) Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair sold to the voters that they could put their trust in the Labor Party – which had been the opposition for a good 18 years (since Margaret Thatcher days?) – to provide fiscal prudency and at the same time managing to update Britain’s “decrepit government hospitals and schools.”

Greenberg drew attention to the story of a British cancer patient who could not get a surgery scheduled until the cancer became inoperable, enroute to concluding that Blair had overpromised.

"Blair and New Labor were forever associated after that with being more spin than real," said Greenberg.

Sound’s overly familiar, doesn’t it?

The lesson from this:

Be honest with the public early on when facing huge challenges as they will let you off the hook on a literal campaign promise if you level with them early about the difficulties and how long it will take to see progress.

What of us back here in Malaysia?

What do we want from our leaders and how long are we able to “sacrifice for the greater good” as to embrace the future that every one of us could look forward to?

Going by the stark disparity (or so it seems)in opinions between the opposing pull of conservatism and liberalism, is this future the one and the same between all of us, our leaders included?

One person’s Utopia can easily be another’s Hell.

In Umno's case, for example, it would be between winning the heart of Malays against winning the heart of Malaysians?

Which shall it be?

Can the party reach a middle ground and will it be one ALL of us can look forward to?

The middle ground?

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Moolah Register

Cash register. What else?
I wonder if everyone is aghast as I am at the facts coming out from Selangor State Assembly's Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) looking in the funding of Balkis (the Wives of Selangor Elected Representatives' Charity and Welfare Organization).

Charity and welfare seemed the most appropriate words in this case with the question being: whose?

I really shouldn’t comment too much as even the police had cleared Balkis of any misdemeanor so who are we to say otherwise, eh..

Keeping mum, however, is also the reason why all these peculiar outflow are occurring, and had it not been for Selcat proceedings, never mind the conspiratorial slant some are making it out as vis a vis the Umno Youth contest.

Much has been said about the new media and how the truth (is it really?) is coming out from this brave addition to the Fourth Statesman.

All those juicy facts and its left to The Sun to regurgitate them to the public.

With Selcat’s role restricted to mere fact finding, there is however little in terms of a follow up that can be expected from all this expose.

After all, (ahem..)Balkis has been cleared by the authorities.

AND RM1 million allocations under the so-called Corporate Social Responsibility Programme for welfare activities including a programme on repentence is quite negligible, isn’t it?

Repentence is after all a good thing as it can get you to the Pearly gates of heaven.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Sneak Taxation

Death and Taxes
The tax men taketh and taketh.

Consultants and business would have probably realize by now a particularly sneaky extra cost in doing business in Malaysia courtesy of the Finance Act 2008.

The provision concern is Section 65 which says the following:

The First Schedule to the principal Act (being the Stamp Act 1949) is amended by substituting for item 22(1) the following item:

"Section 22. Covenant, Loan,Services, Equipment Lease Agreement or Instruments of any kind whatsoever.."

and its goes on to state Ad Valorem tax of 0.5% is imposed on these agreements and instruments.

In other words, if you intend to stamp a service agreement - basically a promise to do something for another party for a certain sum of money - you are slapped with this added cost.

It used to be a flat rate of RM10, but now it's RM5 for every RM1,000.

A RM1m service AGREEMENT will set the parties back by RM5,000 never mind that there is still nothing exchanged between the parties as yet.

I.e. A tax on promise.

In the construction sector where there are easily three, four layers of contractors, tradesmen and consultants, each and every one of the agreements will kena the Ad Valorem.

And these contracts are almost never measly RM1m agreements and the Stamp Act 1949 states the Ad Valorem is payable on the whole contract sum, even if the works are in phases.

Go to any Stamping Office and you are liable to see despatches being turned away without their documents being stamped as the stamping fee is no longer the RM10 that it was before.

Red faced consultants suddenly find themselves having to explain to their clients that they need to fork out some extra money in an environment already fraught with uncertainties.

The amendments supposedly takes effect from Jan 1.

I do not know whether it was case of bad drafting, or an intentional one, but coming at a time of Great Depression (gasp!!), the only party being stimulated here would be the Taxmen.

What is our representatives at the Parliament doing in missing such a blatant tax on business?

Whose interests are they looking out for?

Do note that businesses create employment for the Rakyat before you start yammering about social responsibilities bla bla.

Don't demean yourself that this was the right move to be made.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Primus Inter Pares

Calvin - Boy of Dessstiny

Bill Watterson's Calvin

“Malaysia needs someone who the rakyat can throw their weight behind without reservation. Someone they can trust and respect. Someone who has no scandal to distract him and thereby gain respect from the international community.”

According to Zaid Ibrahim, these are the prerequisites for our PM to be and in his mind, Najib Tun Razak is not the one who fulfills them.

The speech, daring in that it was made in public, sheds nothing new to netizens as it recaps some of the political baggage shouldered by Najib.

Zaid however goes on to say this: “There are still well qualified members of parliament from Umno who can be appointed PM to bring us back from the brink.”

I am no fan of the now much maligned Malay nationalist party, but all the same, after all the years of covering some of their personalities, I have some soft spots for some.

Are they amongst those in Zaid’s mind, I wonder?

There are altogether 78 Umno members in the Parliament, and for obvious reasons, a good majority would not fit in the mould set out by Zaid.

(On the side: Would he consider himself to be a viable candidate? Hmm. Now there’s one thought to ponder..)

I’ve thus narrowed down my list (in no particular order, really) to the following few:

Tengku Razaleigh Tengku Hamzah (Some says he too much of a gentlemen, but since when is chivalry a crime?)

Mustapa Mohamed

Ahmad Husni Mohamad Hanadzlah

Rais Yatim

Shahrir Abdul Samad

This is basically my personal list, and you’re welcome to have your own.

I’ve left out some obvious names for the same “political baggage” reasoning and since I am less than privy to all political shenanigans, there might just be skeletons which others would know of the names listed.

Like I said, it’s MY list.

From this list, however, you should be able to see one name that has far more credentials than the rest.

First Among Equals, so as to speak.

Alas, it’s really out of our hands for now.

I doubt it would be somebody else than Najib Tun Razak who would be occupying the highest administrative pedestal of the country.

We’ll see soon enough.

Marvel's Galactus

Gah Lak Tus!

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Cynical Sceptic

I admit to being a cynic and a sceptic when the MACC first came to being.

The “Old wine in new bottle”; “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (in a negative way, of course) kind of sentiments.

It was unfortunate for a body of (should-have-been-respected) professionals to be perceived by some as partisan, something which readers of the Sun (by far one of the “bravest” mainstream newspapers) could probably attest to.

Exposes of alleged corrupt practices in the said Daily remain just that with little breakthrough in terms of prosecution, and this void somewhat enhances those with perception of partisanship on the part of the then ACA and now MACC.

Recent headlines involving ruling party personalities however have certainly provided some promise to eradicate these allegations of partiality on the MACC’s part.

The latest must surely be: “Norza pleads not guilty to two graft charges.”

The fact that he is an Umno Supreme Council member would raise some eyebrows, though perhaps not by much when you read the charge itself, especially with regards the sum allegedly involved.

In two words: chicken feed.

Juicier yet are those headlines regarding Tourism Minister Azalina Othman Said.

"..overzealous officials who said the wrong things" notwithstanding, we wait with bated breath to see where these investigations will take us.

Uncannily, both cases are in relations to the upcoming Umno elections, so the cynical would be less than enthusiastic that these are signs in how things are going to be for the MACC.

There are tonnes of allegations flying around, and going by the number of reports, the MACC is probably swamped with cases to investigate.

Party money politics – to my mind – should be the least of the MACC’s concerns.
Let the political parties deal with their own problems as the MACC has enough on their plate as it is.

If I am not mistaken, each political party have enough means to tackle such shenanigans.

Furthermore, the less than righteous in politics should have their retribution the political way: ie. Voted out in disgrace.

Of course, this would only happen if we are to assume that a majority of the voting members (country, party – doesn’t matter really) are the rational, corruption hating individuals that they should be.

Whatever the case, this should e the mechanism to handle money politics, and naturally we beget what we sow.

A nation full of corrupt practices condoning folks will thus get corrupt leaders.

Back to MACC.

Allegations of corruption are by far the most difficult to prove especially since it operates on a tit for tat basis: the tit gives and the tat receives; both would be in the wrong and blemished characters never make good witnesses.

To be truly the great anti corruptor that it needs to be, the MACC has to put the fear of its wrath into all of the corrupt.

Going after the so-called big fishes would be a definite fear inducer to the smaller, less significant ones: if the big guys up there “can kena”, what hope are there for the chicken feeds to get scot free?

Frank Miller’s excellent Batman: Year One tackles this particular theme nicely.

DC Comics Batman Year One, David Mazzuchelli's art

The origin

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Slippery Prose

Beauty and the Beast
I am looking forward to seeing Disney On Ice’s Princess Wishes with two daughters in about two weeks time.

It has certainly been a while since I last saw a live show.

There is a world of difference in watching a performance right in front of your eyes compared to the comforts of one’s home.

Certainly the latter is far more economical, though, and this is one of the reasons why I normally shunned live shows – theatres, concerts etc.

I do hope they would enjoy the outing. We did have some great times watching the starry show at the Planetarium, so this one should prove just as good a hit, if not better.

Speaking of the Arts, I am somewhat baffled by the RM20million allocation in the SSP said to be for “the local arts community to produce creative works in a systematic manner” and that “RTM will implement several projects to develop the local music industry”.

Fans of the hilarious “Yes Minister” series may well recall a chapter “The Middle Class Rip Off” where the issue of popular sports versus Arts was skimmed through, with the Minister James Hacker for the vote-winning former and his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humprey Appleby, for the latter.

The story involved Hacker’s decision to demolish an art gallery in his local constituent, sell the land and use the proceeds to save the local football club.

Sir Humprey’s response to this was a typically snobbish “subsidising self-indulgence”, though not to his Minister’s face directly.

(The Brits are really masters in the art of wit. “Yes Minister” is filled with deliciously, wicked, witty cracks like this one: “"Railway trains are impartial too, but if you lay down the lines for them that's the way they go."

Tres AmigosBy the way, that is from Hacker’s Private Secretary (“None of us types”) Bernard Woolley who makes inane quips to avoid answering potentially controversial questions that requires him to take sides between Hacker and Sir Humprey.)

Being fans of the arts in all its various forms, I must say that I am in agreement with Sir Humprey in this issue.

I don’t believe for a moment that artistic establishments such as Istana Budaya, Dewan Philharmonik and the many art galleries could survive, much less thrive, without some kind of economical patronage.

In simple word: subsidies.

Realistically, these establishments will bleed money and commercial is the last word than can be associated with them. (I stand to be corrected.)

RM20 million is not much money these days but surely there are better creative art causes to which the allocations can be made than something as crass (opps!!) as “the local music industry”.

The local music industry might not be the huge commercial success that they could be, but on the same vein, struggling artists ala the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee are a dime a dozen these days.

Perhaps, the allocation is looking more at the angle of “stimulating” local fans.

If so, then it should be money well spent.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Porky Barrelling

“Cash back from the government? Stupid, wasteful and ineffective - and a shameless attempt to woo voters.”

This reaction came from the high savings Japanese on the proposed one-time cash handout of 12,000 yen (about US$120 each) by the government.

A good majority of respondents pooh pooed the idea as something that would help spur spending for the recession stricken economy that used to be second globally, behind the United States.

US$120 (in micro economic terms) also isn’t that much moolah that would make you suddenly developed an itch to be extravagant, especially since it’s a one off thing.

I would have wondered if Malaysians would have made the same kind of rejection but for the overwhelming 78% of contributors (4.4 million) to the Provident Funds all FOR a 3% reduction in their “savings for the future” response back in January.

As well as a possible 100% (I’m truly guessing here) take up for the also one time RM625 and RM150 fuel subsidies upon renewal of the yearly insurance and vehicle road tax.

Since the Provident fund’s reduction only starts this year, one cannot really gauge whether it would have a positive impact in promoting some growth in the economy.

As for the latter, there were little - statistically speaking - to show as to its effect as the country growth plummeted to a mere 0.1% in the 4th Quarter last year.

Had it not been for the fantastic prices of our commodities – palm oil and fuel – in the first half of the year, the country would have seen a much lower than the 4.6% of GDP growth for the whole of 2008.

Back to Japan; though.

The common thread in all of the detractors’ minds was this: how would the one-time payment help the mainly export-based economy grow or stabilise?

In an earlier article in the Herald Tribune on the country fiscal stimulus of the early 1990s – which spent nearly US$2.1 trillion for construction jobs (contractors, please stop salivating!) - many of the local analysts decried the hefty funding of infra works that provide little in future growth value.

Bridges and roads that lead to nowhere in particular were the common lamentations.

Studies – said the article, not me – showed that Yen for Yen (growth wise), the better investments were in structures of social significance; those which includes hospitals, educational and, even, elderly care institutions.

A particularly damning criticism for the stimulus package was however this line: “... used government spending to grease rural vote-buying machines that help keep the party in power.”

Sounds ever so familiar, doesn’t it?

Going by the sentiment shown to the latest offering from embattled Japanese premiere Taro Aso (of the Liberal Democratic Party, the carrot method no longer works and people genuinely wanted something positive instead.

One comment goes so far as calling it “Pork Barrel spending”, linking the payment asincentive to keep LDP in power.

Japan is in deeper shit than any other Asian economy so far, our “What technical recession?” country included.

If they manage to turn around theirs, then the methodology used would be a great example for the rest of the region to replicate or at least copied in some ways.

The last time Japan introduces a stimulus package, it manages a two year positive growth albeit in a scenario of burgeoning and healthy trading nations.

This current challenge however would take real genius to tackle.

Don’t look like any is emerging so far, though. What about us?
We wait for March 10 with bated breath.

Hopefully its nothing like the “tolong kawan – kawan” RM7 (on paper) billion stimulus package.

Wouldn’t bet on it though.

No signs whatsoever that it would be any different.

Illyana Nikolievna Rasputina