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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pay Syabas more? No thanks, Khairy


COMMENT Khairy Jamaluddin is an interesting man. Oft times, we expect intelligence and maturity from him, probably because once in a while, he actually demonstrates it - his remonstration of Zulkifli Noordin’s insensitive comments on Karpal Singh being a case in point.

Just when you start to think that maybe this is a half-decent politician with vague aspirations to statesmanship however, the man demonstrates an equal capability for the very same lowbrow, misleading, and petty political mudslinging that disappointingly defines Malaysian politics.

I understand that as a representative of the government, it’s easy to feel defensive when the federal government is criticised; I also fully respect any individual’s rights to make their case and argue their position.

Khairy (left) is however one of those people from whom we expected better with regard to the relationship between rhetoric and facts. Hisarticle on the water situation in Selangor is so lopsided that I cannot state with certainty that it is not in fact merely a great trolling exercise. If so, consider me well trolled.

Although I am neither a minister nor an expert on the water industry, the following represents my humble attempt to point out the holes in his arguments.

Among others, I will concentrate on the allusion that Selangor’s water concessionaires do not have enough money, and why the comparisons with regards to water rationing made in the article are fallacious.

Syabas’ perverse mismanagement, corruption and wastage

At the core of his article, Khairy basically suggests that the Selangor government has starved the water concessionaires of sufficient funds, causing them to lack enough money to operate properly.

I concur unhesitatingly that the Selangor government has indeed starved the water concessionaires, putting an end to the excessive profiteering it enjoyed when Barisan Nasional ran Selangor.

Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim is a man who is very careful about who he pays money to, even more so when that money belongs to the public. Unceasingly sacrosanct to him is value for money, getting a good deal, and never paying good money for bad service.

Let’s examine how Syabas, the biggest of the water concessionaires, spends its money.

The most glaring example that people rightfully remember is the incredulous salary paid to Syabas CEO Rozali Ismail - RM425,000 a month, before bonuses.

He makes in a month what most Malaysians do not make in a year (that is, any Malaysian earning less than RM35,416 a month), and he makes in a day (RM1,164) what many Malaysians do not make in a month.

I am not one to begrudge an individual who performs well a decent and deserved salary. If Syabas was financially healthy and providing good services at decent rates (neither of which is the case), then I’m sure some would find a high salary for its CEO to be justified.

Rozali is a former Umno Selangor treasurer, who spent hundreds of millions of Syabas funds to buy pipes from Indonesia (already a breach of contract, which states that all such equipment must be sourced locally) from a company that Rozali himself owns.

Renovation works on Syabas office buildings budgeted at RM23.2 million suddenly balloon up to RM51.2 million; causing some of us to ask whether this one of the 72 percent of Syabas contracts that are awarded via direct negotiation instead of open tender, worth RM600 million in total?

This is at least the third time I’m mentioning some of these points in an article. No one seems to dispute it.

Only BN pours money into black holes

Imagine if a contractor you engaged to renovate your house does not do the job according to specifications, wilfully does exactly what he promised not to do, is in the midst of turning your house into what looks like a nightmare, and then still has the gall to demand that he be paid more.

Only a lunatic would give in to such a contractor. Yet, that is exactly what Khairy is asking Selangor to do. His article suggests that the way to solve Selangor’s water problems is to pump more money into the companies that created them, and that raising the water tariffs excessively (up to 75 percent, cumulatively - a number he conveniently fails to mention) is completely justified.

It appears that even BN’s supposed best and brightest still conform to the twisted logic that has spread corruption so very deep into the lifeblood of Malaysian politics.

In fact, Khairy is proud to trumpet how much money the federal government has pumped into the water concessionaires (RM6.6 billion), as if that was the money that saved Selangor from a drought.

This is most fallacious. Khairy used the word ‘injected’, where the more accurate term is ‘bailed out’. When an Umno company runs itself to the ground via mismanagement and corruption, the knight in shining armour that comes riding in is of course the Umno-controlled federal government.

It is obvious from its track record that Syabas’ financial priorities are not fixing pipes. This cannot possibly be the case if they are still paying Rozali RM425,000 a month. Where do you think that RM6.6 billion is really going?

Shameful NRW levels

Khairy proudly proclaims that Syabas’ non-revenue water (NRW - in essence, wasted water) levels of 32 percent is below the national average of 36 percent, happily telling us the NRW levels of other states - Pahang (56 percent), Kelantan (55 percent), Sabah (50 percent) and Kedah (47 percent).

Has the man no shame? If I was part of a governing party that wasted half the water it produced, I would not know where to put my face. I guess for BN, wastage and leakage is par for the course.

Being proud that Syabas’ NRW is lower than the national average is like comparing ourselves to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.      

Actually, forget comparing ourselves to Bangladesh - Dhaka’s NRW levels are lower than Syabas’ (29 percent). Some further examples: Eastern Manila - 11 percent, Germany - 7 percent, Denmark - 6 percent, and Singapore - 5 percent.

Those are the standards and levels to which we should aspire, not the 56 percent of our prime minister’s home state.

Khairy states that the lack of water shortages in those states with high NRWs means that the water shortage in Selangor is not caused by NRW levels.

This logic is painfully fallacious. I assume that if the national average is 36 percent, and the states mentioned by Khairy have NRWs that are so high above the national average, then other states such as Johor and Perak (who have been experiencing water rationing), should have lower NRWs.

Going by this reasoning, weather is hardly a determinant of water shortages; rather, the lower a state’s NRW, the more likely it is to experience water rationing.

If this is how they determine causality at Oxford, I am glad I did not qualify for admission.

Keeping promises, making tough decisions

Khairy implies that Khalid’s adherence to his manifesto promise of free water is what is causing the water shortage.

I’m a little confused. BN likes to berate Khalid for not keeping his manifesto promises, and now Khairy is actively saying that the right thing to do is for Khalid to break his manifesto promises.

I do understand that breaking promises is again, par for the course where BN is concerned, but I rather believe that Selangoreans have demonstrated more than once that they’d like to keep such rubbish politics out of their state.

The whole reason Selangor provides free water is because it knows that it can afford it, as long as the water industry is properly run.

Khairy’s article in The Star was possibly targeted towards upper middle class Malaysians for whom a 100 percent or maybe even 1,000 percent increase in water bill would barely make a dent in monthly expenditures, and would certainly be worth paying in order to avoid the inconveniences currently faced.

Those however, aren’t the only Malaysians who need looking out for.

Khalid has made some hard decisions with regards to water rationing. True to nature, his approach to water rationing suggests that his priorities are to be conservative with regards to long-term water supply planning, instead of making decisions that are popular but detrimental to our future.

The deal Selangoreans deserve

Khairy calls the deal reached between the federal and state governments a sweet deal for Selangor. I most heartily concur.

Khalid is a master at getting a good deal, and the way things have been done, Selangoreans are getting excellent value for money, as they have for some years now.

I disagree however, with Khairy’s pathetic attempt to say that the federal government agreed to this deal out of desperate, sincere concern for the people of Selangor.

The truth is the federation needs Selangor as much as Selangor needs the federation. As the biggest revenue generating state in the federation, Selangor has always received disproportionately low allocations from the federal government, so it is way past its due.

More to the point, it is well past the time BN made amends for the manner in which it has allowed Selangor’s water concessionaires to pillage the water industry at the expense of the rakyat to fatten the pockets of already fat cats (I say again, RM425,000 a month).

The water concessionaires would still have made a tidy profit if they accepted the RM9.65 billion buyout offer. Their refusal to do so was not, as Khairy attempts to paint, a failure of the Selangor government, but a result of unbridled greed on behalf of BN linked corporate players.

Decades of corruption and cronyism have led some on both sides of the fence to feel entitled, a notion that Khalid quickly disabused them of - a stance so vigorous and unyielding that it may have been the cause of the Kajang move.

We can only hope that the darling of BN’s liberals will pick his battles and words with better care. A former colleague joked: Just because Khairy managed to rub shoulders with Barack Obama, he’s now setting his sights on higher ministries.

Patience, brother, patience.



NATHANIEL TAN does not flush as often as he used to. He tweets@NatAsasi.

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