Charity homes running on empty

by Gan Pei Ling, 6 November 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

GROWING public apathy is pushing some charity homes in the Klang Valley into debt, as personal and corporate sponsors cut back on financial support in the light of rising cost of living.

For the Kirtarsh Home for Children with Disabilities, electricity and water cuts have become a regular occurrence recently, said owner Judith Pamela Muthiah.

Judith, 45, said the home which houses 50 orphans, senior citizens and people with disabilities aged between seven and 102 needs up to RM25,000 a month to cover food, utilities and staff salaries.

She said the amount was already considered small, as rental of the home’s premises is a mere “RM1” token fee to the owner.

Still, obtaining funding to cover the monthly expenses has become near impossible, she said.

“At best we get ‘durian runtuh’ (one-off donation) of a few thousand ringgit, especially during festive seasons, and we’ll use it to pay the urgent bills first,” she said.

“Sometimes we do receive calls from companies, but when they find out we’re in Bukit Beruntung, they said they would look for charities nearer to them,” she said.

The home has tried to appeal to the Social Welfare Department and corporations for regular financial support to no avail.

Judith quit her full-time job as a preschool teacher several years ago to help her husband Mani @ Wannan Kanan, 49, run the home.

Mani’s late brother, a person with disability, started the home in 1999 to help others like himself.

Apart from the husband-and-wife team, the home has four staff members, who are former residents of the home, trained to become caretakers and driver.

Judith said the home has had to delay paying their salaries because of the shortage of funds.

“Fortunately, they have been very understanding,” she told The Malaysian Insight.

“We have hired caretakers, but we found that they abused the residents when we are not around, so we no longer hire outsiders.

“This isn’t a job you can do if you just want to earn money,” she said.

Charity homes that do not have land tenure security like Kirtarsh have chalked up even larger debts from rental arrears, and most can ill-afford to even hire full-timers.

S.K. Manimaran, 51, founder of the Siddharthan Care Centre in Petaling Jaya has accumulated RM120,000 in rental debt.

The centre, which was set up in 2008, currently cares for 19 orphans and children with disabilities aged between six and 12.

“The rental is RM3,500 a month. Luckily, the landlord has been understanding,” said the freelance marketing executive.

The centre does not have any staff. To save cost, his wife, sisters, daughter and in-laws double up as caretakers for the children.

Murugan, a Komuter train driver and founder of Pusat Jagaan Sai Annai Illam in Pandamaran, Port Klang, 54, makes do with just one full-time staff member.

“The other (full-timer) is my wife. The others – me, my daughter (22), son (21), and brother-in-law are all part-time.”

He has accumulated two years’ worth of rent amounting to RM19,200, and owes electricity provider Tenaga Nasional Bhd and water supplier Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd at least RM1,000 each in arrears.

Despite the tough times, Murugan still dreams of building a permanent home for the 30 orphans, single mothers and senior citizens he and his family members are looking after.

“I just need the land. I already have contractors who offered to provide free cement to help me build the shelter,” said Murugan.

The three homes are part of a group of 10 charities in the Klang Valley which banded together for the first time to jointly organise a fundraising concert on November 25 at Stadium Melawati, Shah Alam.

Francis Siva, 58, the founder of Independent Living Training Centre which trains people with spinal cord injury to live independently, said they hope to raise at least RM1.2 million from the concert so that each charity can take home RM100,000.

The cost of organising the concert is estimated at about RM200,000.

“The RM100,000 is a lifeline that will help sustain us for the coming year,” he said.

His centre, which currently has 10 residents, receives donations from regular donors and foundations, such as the Kuok Foundation, but these, too, have declined over the past two years due to the economic downturn.

Besides supporting the concert, Judith said any good Samaritan or business that could adopt the homes’ monthly utility bills, rental, staff salary or other regular expenses would be offering a huge financial relief to the founders.

“We also need tutors for the children and doctors for the senior citizens, to just visit once a week or month would be great.

“That would help us save on tuition cost and transport cost and time to the hospitals.

“And to play games with them (the residents). They would really appreciate it,” said Judith.

Why so secretive, civil society asks Selangor, Penang

by Gan Pei Ling, 31 October 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

THE Selangor and Penang administrations have come under fire for their lacklustre implementation of the freedom of information (FOI) law, with civil society groups saying that citizens’ access to state information remains largely unchanged since its introduction.

The sunshine law was enacted in 2011 to promote greater transparency and accountability, by allowing the public access to state information.

However, six years on, both state governments have done “very little or nothing at all to promote the use of the FOI”, said corruption watchdog Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) executive director Cynthia Gabriel.

“There is zero publicity from the state governments. This is very unfortunate, even disappointing,” Cynthia told The Malaysian Insight.

Cynthia, formerly a councillor with the Petaling Jaya City Council, said Penang Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy and Selangor Speaker Hannah Yeoh were among the handful of Pakatan Harapan politicians who have raised public awareness about the FOI.

“The citizens of these states could have used the law more proactively to show the Barisan Nasional-ruled states how an FOI law can be used to improve their quality of life,” said Cynthia.

Due to the low public awareness, Penang only received 71 FOI requests in 2015 and 41 as of June 2016, Dr Ramasamy told a forum hosted by the Penang Institute last year.

Selangor received 163 FOI applications between 2013 and 2015, out of which only five requests were unsuccessful.

Critics have pointed out that these five include requests for the declassification of high-profile cases, such as the Selangor water agreement and documents related to the Kidex highway.

The Malaysian Insight’s efforts to get the latest numbers of successful and rejected FOI requests from both state administrations were unsuccessful. “At the time of publication, the state governments are compiling the data.”

Last year, C4 partnered with another local transparency watchdog, Sinar Project, to launch the Right 2 Know Malaysia campaign, aimed at helping Malaysians learn about the FOI via a website and public talks.

Sinar Project coordinator Khairil Yusof said that the project set out to test how well the FOI law worked in practice at the local council and state level requests.

They found that the Selangor FOI law and process was much better in practice than Penang.

However, the group was surprised that the Selangor executive council denied their request for information on the expenditure of excos under former menteri besar Khalid Ibrahim as well as current Menteri Besar Azmin Ali.

Khairil said the rejection of their request appeared to show that the Selangor administration is not willing to be fully transparent when it comes to executive councillors’ expenditure.

Selangor also denied requests to make public information regarding controversial projects and agreements, such as the Damansara-Shah Alam Elevated Expressway (DASH) and the state’s water agreement.

In response to criticism on the implementation of the FOI law, Selangor’s Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) carried out a public hearing in January 2015 to review the implementation of the law.

Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong was put in charge of overseeing the FOI implementation but did not respond to interview requests at press time.

Cynthia from C4 also said that the FOI would always fall short of its ideals of greater transparency as long as restrictive laws, such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA), supersedes it.

“The OSA still supersedes the state FOI enactments. Information on highway projects, infrastructure and road works has been denied on such grounds.”

She said Malaysia, which aims to become a developed country by 2020, must reform the OSA if it is sincere in eradicating corruption.

Trauma lingers on for Ops Lalang detainees

by Gan Pei Ling, 30 Oct 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

THREE decades after Operasi Lalang, the trauma of being detained without trial and interrogated by Special Branch officers lingers on for some of the political detainees.

“One thing that weighed heavily on my mind then was how long were we going to be detained here (at Kamunting). Even a convicted criminal knows their length of sentence.

“It’s difficult to talk about it until now,” one of the four female detainees, Lim Chin Chin, 61, shared with a packed hall at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall tonight.

Lim, Dr Cecilia Ng and Dr Chee Heng Leng, co-founders of the Women’s Development Collective and All Women’s Action Society, and Irene Xavier, who worked with women’s workers organisation Sahabat Wanita, were accused of being Marxists bent on overthrowing the government by rallying women.

The support group for the detainees and their families that later morphed into human rights organisation Suaram was the only good that came out of Operasi Lalang, said Lim.

Irene, 66, said she also endured physical abuse during her 355-day ordeal as a detainee between 1987 and 1988.

“They claimed I was lying, that some of my friends have told them the truth and I haven’t. On that basis, the IO (investigation officer) got angry and beat me,” said Irene.

“However hard I tried to keep my mind sane, I think there are certain things that they have done to me that still bothers me.

“They would repeat names of people you only remotely knew and the memories would come back and become very fresh in your mind.

“I tried very hard (then) to forget the names. I didn’t succeed during the first 60 days. But after that I can forget people’s names very quickly,” she said.

She was also told by the Special Branch officers that she was a very talented leader and they could make sure she became Wanita MIC chief if she supports the then MIC president S. Samy Vellu.

Even after she was released, Irene said the police officers continued to harass her by coming to her house in Seremban at odd hours and shout out her name until she came out.

However, she took heart in her observation that young Malaysians do not share the same fear of being detained without trial as she did in those days.

“Maybe with the setting up of Suaram, something changed. Former detainees (in my time) would only speak when they are alone with you, never in front of others (like tonight),” said Irene.

PSM chairman Dr Nasir Hashim said the Special Branch interrogators would pretend to want to engage in intellectual discourse with him.

“They’ll give you a talk and then ask you what you thought. I’ll repeat the same things they said back to them,” said Dr Nasir.

He added that he was detained underground for the first 60 days and could not tell day from night.

“When they shut the air vent, I couldn’t breath. One time, for three days the ground shook, only when I was released I found out from a contractor that I was detained in Bukit Aman,” he said.

In Kamunting, Dr Nasir, a nutritionist, took up gardening, took care of fallen sparrows and picked up acupuncture.

“I had my clinic and had a special branch couple as my patients. I told them you are my patients in here. Outside of it, we fight,” he recalled.

He was released after 15 months.

Tan Kah Kheng, a detainee and chemical engineer who campaigned against the rare earth refinery in Bukit Merah, said a Special Branch officer bragged about having made many people mad.

Dr Kua Kia Soong said everyone had different coping strategies during their detention, adding that individuals from small political parties like Nasir tend to have it tougher than people from bigger political parties.

Members of the audience asked if the detainees want compensation or retribution from the people responsible for their ordeal.

“We are asking Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) to apologise. We don’t want him detained,” said Kua.

Dr Mahathir has consistently denied responsibility for Operasi Lalang and said it was carried out at the insistence of the then Inspector-General of Police Hanif Omar and Special Branch chief Abdul Rahim Noor.

During Operasi Lalang, 106 people comprising of activists, politicians, academics, students and preachers were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act.

The second biggest mass arrest since May 16 racial riots also saw the revocation of two dailies and two weekly newspapers’ publishing licenses.

Malay Muslims need to speak up against extremism

by Gan Pei Ling, 22 October 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

MORE Malay Muslims must speak out against religious extremism and curtails on intellectual freedom, say panelists at a forum on reason and faith in society today.

Citing the ongoing debate over the Muslim-only launderette as an example, social activist Marina Mahathir said it would have been akin to the beginning of apartheid.

“It’s about dividing the Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s the beginning of apartheid. Therefore we have a right to say stop,” she said to a packed room at the University of Nottingham Malaysia teaching centre in Kuala Lumpur.

She added that the royal backlash against preacher Zamihan Mat Zin, who supported the establishment of Muslim-only launderette, was unusual.

“When it comes to religion, people are quite afraid to speak up because they have seen what happen to people who speak out like the late Kassim Ahmad.

“Not everyone agree with what’s going on. It’s a culture of fear. We need more people to speak up, not just us the usual lot (on the panel), to say enough is enough,” said Marina.

Beside the culture of fear, Zaharom Nain from University of Nottingham Malaysia believes an insular siege mentality among Malay Muslims also restrict them from speaking their minds freely about religion.

“Some of the polls that have been done indicate that. Media like Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and TV3 that is the dominant media in rural areas provide a skewed picture of Malaysia,” said Zaharom.

Universiti Malaya law lecturer Azmi Sharom added that few political parties with a Malay Muslim majority dared to speak up against the growing extremism.

“What we need are the people from Amanah and Bersatu to say no we cannot allow this to continue,” he said.

He added that none of these political parties have been brave enough to openly oppose PAS president Hadi Awang’s proposal to amend the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act to implement hudud.

“They think it’s political suicide, that they will be accused of being a murtad if they don’t support it,” said Azmi.

He added that it is up to Malay Muslims on the ground to make intellectual freedom a political issue otherwise politicians will not care.

Azmi was referring to the recent ban on a book authored by a US-based Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol and Mustafa’s detention by Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (Jawi).

Isham Pawan Ahmad from the International Islamic University Malaysia said Malay Muslims must be more discerning between man-made and divine ideas.

“It’s your right to listen to different ideas and make a decision for yourself.

“When the Prophet said something, his followers would ask: Is that a revelation or your opinion? If it’s your opinion, we can discuss it. Islam values shura (mutual consultation),” he said.

Overheads, not greed, cause of higher fish price, say Sekinchan fishermen

by Gan Pei Ling, 13 October 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

ANGER is brewing among fishermen in Sekinchan, the largest fish supplier in Selangor.

The mere mention of the name Jamal Md Yunos is sufficient to set off a tirade from most of the Teochew fishermen here, or earn you a scowl.

“Diesel price, the costs to maintain our fishing boats, to repair fishing nets and wooden jetty, the wages of workers have all increased over the years.

“How can we make a living if the price of fish stays the same?

“Let’s see if Jamal can actually sustain a business selling the fish for RM5 a kilo every day,” said a villager who only wanted to be known as Su, when met at Bagan Sekinchan.

Jamal, Sg Besar Umno division chief, sold ikan kembung at RM5 per kilo at Sekinchan and Ampang last month in a bid to prove his allegation that unscrupulous middlemen, backed by DAP, are marking up the price of fish.

Su’s husband owns two fishing boats – one run by Myanmar workers and another by Indonesians.

She has been helping out with the fishing business for the past three decades.

“We’re also at the mercy of market forces. We don’t set the fish prices,” she said.

Chia Tiang Engi, a wholesaler and fisherman with seven fishing boats, said fishing is an expensive and risky business.

Buying a fishing boat can cost up to RM1 million or more, he said.

Most fishermen here, who inherited the trade from their families, took out loans to buy a boat. A boat could last up to 30 years with careful maintenance.

“The diesel cost for a fishing trip is easily a few thousand ringgit. We must make sure we get enough catch to make a profit.”

To save cost, Chia said most fishing boats would stay for at least three days, some up to eight days, at sea.

“On top of that, we are always at the mercy of the weather and the sea. The monsoon winds have become unpredictable since more than a decade ago.

“Our catch has also decreased over the years. Every ringgit we make is hard earned.”

Chia added that he pays his workers, mostly from Myanmar, at least RM1,200 a month.

A fishing net, which needs to be replaced every six to 12 months, costs between RM10,000 and RM20,000.

Sekinchan assemblyman Ng Suee Lim also rubbished Jamal’s allegation that DAP is manipulating the fishermen and middlemen to pump up the price of fish, as “baseless and politically motivated”.

“The overhead costs for local fishermen have increased significantly because many of their subsidies were removed and the 6% GST (goods and services tax) has also hit them hard. The wages of their workers have also gone up.

“That’s why fish prices have increased,” Ng told The Malaysian Insight.

He said Jamal’s RM5 per kg fish gimmick is unsustainable and advised the Umno division leader to lobby Putrajaya to restore subsidies for fishermen and remove the GST if he wants to bring down the price of fish.

Jamal said he will be selling fish at Padang Timur in Petaling Jaya tomorrow at the same time as Pakatan Harapan’s anti-kleptocracy rally.

He will be bringing in 10 tonnes of fish – from Sg Besar and Perak – in three lorries.

Petaling Jaya mayor Mohd Azizi Mohd Zain, however, warned Jamal that he will need a permit from the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) if he wants to carry on with the plan to sell fish at the rally venue.

Azizi said enforcement officers will take action if Jamal insists of selling fish without a permit.

APEC customs officials learn best practices for detecting illegal timber products

31 August 2017 © FLEGT.org

More than 100 customs, forestry, and anti-corruption officials and civil society representatives from countries in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum met in Vietnam from 18-19 August 2017 to share best practices for identifying illegal timber and wood products.

Speakers at the Workshop on Customs Best Practices to Identify Illegal Timber and Wood Products

“Customs are at the frontline of combating the illegal logging and associated trade,” said Jennifer Prescott, Assistant US Trade Representative for Environment and Natural Resources. “The illegal wood trade has grown in sophistication. So too must the customs.”

The illegal timber trade deprives economies of revenue from legally, sustainably managed forests, undermines legitimate businesses, threatens the livelihoods of local communities and harms biodiversity.

The workshop in Vietnam was an opportunity for officials from APEC countries — which account for 80% of the global timber trade — to discuss tools and resources available to assess the legality risk of wood products.

Davyth Stewart, Manager of Interpol’s Natural Resources Division, introduced Project LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests), which Interpol launched in 2012 to combat illegal logging and related crimes including corruption.

It supports investigations, coordinates international networks for information sharing, and supports cooperation between civil society and law enforcement. “Our work is to provide behind-the-scenes support,” said Stewart. “The credit goes to the frontline enforcement officers doing the work on the ground.”

Project LEAF’s work with countries has led to 549 arrests, mostly in Latin America and Africa, and the seizure of timber worth US$1.48 billion and equivalent to 16,888 hectares of forests.

Stewart said, however, that almost half (48%) of the arrests were low-level offenders such as truck drivers, and another 40% were facilitators. Only 10% were company owners or managers and just 2% were the masterminds. “We need to see more prosecution at the higher level to have a real impact in curbing the illegal timber trade,” he said.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) set up a Container Control Program in 2003 in collaboration with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) to identify high-risk containers in four countries. Since then, 40 more countries have joined the programme and another 14 are keen to participate, said Long Nguyen of UNODC.

While the programme’s main focus is to crackdown on drug trafficking, it also strives to detect illegal wildlife and timber shipments as well as shipments containing weapons, alcohol, counterfeit medicine, electronic waste, among others.

Nguyen said the programme helped Sri Lanka to seize 28 containers of illegal Madagascan rosewood worth US$7 million that was in transit from Tanzania to Hong Kong in 2014.

It also helped Dutch customs to bust an importer of West Indian mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) logs from Suriname. Trade in this species is controlled under the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the shipment lacked the relevant CITES permit.

Marie Wong of the WCO Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for Asia and the Pacific said the WCO has also set up ENVIRONET, an encrypted network for customs officials to share real-time information on illegal timber seizures and possible ongoing trafficking.

One of the big challenges customs officials face is identifying the tree species from which wood originates. To help address this, the UNODC last year published the Best Practice Guide for Forensic Timber Identification.

It contains detailed information for law enforcement, including rapid-field identification techniques, collecting and preserving evidence. It also includes information for scientists, such as forensic methods for timber identification and resources for acquiring reference material and data, as well as guidance for prosecutors and judges.

The guide was so popular at the 2016 Conference of Parties to CITES in South Africa that it is temporarily out of print, said Shelley Gardner, coordinator of the US Department of Agriculture Illegal Logging Program.

Dr Eleanor Dormontt, a researcher in DNA identification and forensics at the University of Adelaide, Australia, who helped developed the guide explained why it is challenging to identify illegal timber products.

“Without the leaf, flower and other parts of the tree, it’s already difficult even for wood specialists,” she said. “It’s almost impossible for customs officials to identify the species just from the bark. Another reason is illegal timber is often mixed with legal timber products.”

Dormontt urged customs officials to tell scientists which priority species they need help identifying during raids, so that more research can be dedicated to such species.

In Vietnam, the Research Institute of Forestry Industry and TRAFFIC Vietnam have produced a guide to identify 35 regulated and prohibited wood species. The guide is used as a training resource for forestry and customs officials, who have requested more and longer training sessions so that more staff can learn to identify more wood species.

“Forestry officers from illegal timber trade hotspots were especially interested,” said TRAFFIC Vietnam program officer Nguyen Thanh Thuy. “They have never used magnifiers for wood identification. Most of them relied on on-the-job experience, smelling or observation.”

TRAFFIC Global Timber Programme leader Chen Hin Keong also shared an overview of WCO timber trade guidelines that can be localised to suit the needs of domestic authorities.

“Customs officials are not supposed to work in isolation,” said Chen. “They need to be aware of the tools that will help them do their job better. As such, they also need inter-agency and stakeholder support.”

There is also a need for importing countries to do more to recognise timber trade restrictions in exporting countries, said Dr Federico Lopez-Casero from the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

“A number of economies have banned roundwood exports,” he said. “Yet their roundwood continues to register in the import statistics of their trading partners.”

Lopez-Casero hopes more importing economies would instruct their customs official to respect such export bans and to stop granting import licences for these illegal products.

Kerstin Canby, Director of the Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Initiative at US-based non-profit Forest Trends also highlighted the importance of having stronger timber-import legislation in Asian economies.

She pointed out that countries such as Thailand, South Africa, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Mozambique, Fiji, India, Cambodia and Laos have not traditionally supplied the US and Europe, and that regulation by Asian markets would provide the trade leverage needed to incentivise legal harvesting.

Senior customs officials from the US, Canada, Russia, China and Vietnam, representatives from two voluntary certification programmes — the Program for the Endorsement of Certification (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — also shared their experiences of safeguarding timber legality.

More information
Presentations and more information about the workshop are available here.

The workshop was sponsored by the United States and co-sponsored by Australia, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and The Philippines. It was implemented with support from APEC, Interpol, the EU FLEGT Facility and The Nature Conservancy through the Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) Program.