by Gan Pei Ling / 20 August 2012 © The Nut Graph
SELANGOR, apparently, is facing a water crisis. On 15 July 2012, Selangor’s sole water distributor Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor (Syabas) announced its application to carry out water rationing exercises in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.
The Selangor government responded with puzzlement. Representatives said the state’s seven dams were filled to the brim. But Syabas countered that regardless of the dams’ water levels, Selangor’s 34 water treatment plants are operating at full — and some over-capacity. It said overall water reserve levels were down to two percent instead of the “safe mark” of at least 20.
After the Selangor government proposed to take-over Syabas and a Special Cabinet Committee on the Selangor Water Issue refused Syabas’s proposal, Syabas backed down. Water rationing was a “long-term plan” but it wasn’t necessary to implement it now, said its chief operating officer Datuk Lee Miang Koi.
So were the 7.5 million consumers in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya taken for a ride? Is there or is there not a water crisis and what is being done to ensure it doesn’t happen?
There is currently no widespread water shortage across the state and two neighbouring federal territories, according to a Selangor government task force set up to monitor Syabas’s daily operations.
The task force led by state secretary Datuk Khusrin Munawi and staffed with water experts and Selangor Economic Planning Unit (UPEN) officers also uncovered something revealing. Selangor’s 34 treatment plants are jointly capable of treating up to 4,807 million litres of water per day (MLD). But, Syabas is only capable of distributing up to 4,411 MLD. So even if the treatment plants fulfilled their full potential in their water treatment capacity, Syabas still can’t distribute all of it. Moreover, an ongoing mitigation project will reportedly boost the treatment plants’ capacity to 5,139 MLD in March 2013.
In addition, up to 1,389 MLD is lost due to pipe leakages and theft, also known as non-revenue water. Only some 2,944 MLD treated water reaches consumers. A 32% of non-revenue water is extremely high compared to five percent in Singapore and seven percent in Germany.
Syabas has said that the Selangor government needs to approve the Sungai Langat Two treatment plant to alleviate the water crisis. The multi-billion project involves transferring and treating raw water from Pahang. Federal government ministers also support the project.
But why push for a mega project when Syabas can’t even distribute all the water it treats? And why doesn’t Syabas fix the pipe leakages and theft before advocating a multi-billion ringgit interstate water transfer project?
Syabas says the Selangor government is to blame for freezing its capital expenditure programme and thereby jeopardising efforts to bring down non-revenue water. But federal lawmaker Tony Pua pointed out in a 7 August public forum that the state has no obligation to fund the private company.
“The [concession] agreement says Syabas may request for funding from the state. But [there are] no obligations on the part of the state to fund Syabas’s pipe-replacement programmes,” said the Petaling Jaya Utara Member of Parliament in an email to The Nut Graph on 17 Aug 2012.
The Selangor government has taken issue with Syabas’s financial management. It sought to terminate the concession agreement with Syabas in 2008 as an audit report found the company had breached contract terms. This included awarding up to 72% of contracts, worth RM600 million, in direct negotiations instead of via open tenders as stipulated in the 2004 concession agreement.
The recent water spat is but an extension of the three-year deadlock over the state’s water restructuring exercise.
Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s administration has been trying to restructure the fragmented water industry and terminate what it claims are lopsided concession agreements with the existing water concessionaires.
Three companies — Puncak Niaga Sdn Bhd (PNSB), Konsortium Abass Sdn Bhd (Abass) and Syarikat Pengeluar Air Sdn Bhd (Splash) treat the raw water from dams. Syabas distributes it to consumers. The Selangor government says it can improve efficiency and keep water tariffs low if it restructures the water sector by taking over the four companies. It offered RM5.7 billion for them in February 2009 and revised it upwards to RM9.3 billion in June 2009 after the initial bid was rejected.
Splash, a Gamuda subsidiary, and Selangor-owned Abbas accepted the RM9.3 billion deal. But, Syabas and PNSB, both owned by Puncak Niaga Holdings Bhd, snubbed the offer. Puncak Niaga Holdings executive chairperson Tan Sri Rozali Ismail was formerly an Umno Selangor treasurer.
It cannot be proven that partisan interest came into play but the refusal of the deal is certainly in line with how the federal government has dealt with Selangor’s water-restructuring efforts. It has repeatedly ignored Selangor’s requests to terminate the concession agreement with Syabas. As the agreement is signed between Syabas, the Selangor government and the federal government, Selangor can’t terminate the agreement without the federal government’s agreement. The federal government also refused public disclosure of the concession agreement, which is classified under the Official Secrets Act. It has also not exercised its power under the Water Services Industry Act 2006 to intervene and resolve the impasse. Under the Act, the federal government may assume control of the concessionaire’s business if it is deemed necessary for “national interest”.
One has to ask whether the federal government is acting in good faith when it was previously supportive of Selangor’s investment arm Kumpulan Darul Ehsan Bhd’s plan to consolidate the fragmented water sector. This, however, was before the 2008 elections when Barisan Nasional was still in power in Selangor.
Consumers first, politics later
Water is a vital need for all. It is unfortunate that it seems to have become a part of politicians’ arsenal in trying to win the public’s favour. The recent “water crisis” claim highlights again how urgent it is to end this three-way deadlock between the Selangor government, Syabas and the federal government.
Khalid’s administration proposed to hire an international arbitrator back in 2010 to ensure the four companies received a fair offer from the state. At the very least, parties could agree to this to see whether an acceptable and face-saving solution can be found to ensure that Selangor residents’ water supply is not jeopardised.
by Gan Pei Ling / 23 April 2012 © The Nut Graph
IT has been almost six months since the Court of Appeal in a landmark ruling declared it unconstitutional to prohibit university students from supporting or opposing political parties under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA).
On 9 April 2012, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin finally tabled amendments to the UUCA, Private Higher Educational Institutions Act and the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act for first reading. The three bills were tabled for second and third reading in the Dewan Rakyat on the evening of 19 April 2011 and were passed on the same night after a four-hour debate.
What were the amendments and how would it impact our university students? More importantly, does the revised UUCA provide a freer, safer space for critical thinking and diversity of thought in our varsities?
Most notably, Section 15 of the UUCA has been revised to let varsity students join political parties. When the bill was first tabled, however, there was a sub-clause barring students who joined political parties from running in campus elections or holding posts in campus groups. Umno Youth chief and Rembau Member of Parliament (MP) Khairy Jamaluddin, who led the Barisan Nasional Backbenchers Club‘s challenge against the sub-clause, had called it a “ridiculous” restriction.
Although this sub-clause has been removed, I agree with the Bar Council and with Pakatan Rakyat lawmakers that the amendments don’t go far enough. Sections 15(2) to (5) still impede on students’ freedom of expression and association as guaranteed under Article 10(1) of the Federal Constitution.
Students are still forbidden from joining any society or organisation deemed “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University” by the university’s Board of Directors under Section 15(2)(b).
Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee chairperson Syahredzan Johan notes that this provision restricts the students’ freedom of association. “It’s in fact very patronising. It assumes that ‘the university knows best’,” he said in an e-mail interview.
On top of that, the students cannot express support, sympathy or opposition to any unlawful individual or organisation under Section 15(3)(a) or those deemed “unsuitable” by the Board under Section 15(3)(b).
“Thus, no student can express support or opposition toBersih (as it was declared unlawful) or to take an international example, the Muslim Brotherhood (as it has been outlawed in several countries),” Syahredzan points out.
Section 15(4) also does not encourage students to speak up except on academic topics they’re familiar with.
Given that universities should be providing civil spaces for nurturing critical thought and robust debate, the Bar Council has stated its disappointment with the amendments. It called on the government to scrap these provisions entirely.
Restricting political spaces
Besides that, the UUCA still prohibits students from being involved in political party activities on campus under Section 15(2)(d) in the name of maintaining neutrality on campus.
But how would our universities define “political party activities”? If a student organisation were to invite a politician experienced in labour issues to speak about minimum wage, would this count as a political party activity? Where should the line be drawn?
This clause is not only restrictive but is illogical. Most university students are of voting age and should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to be involved in political party activities on campus. Why should we be afraid to let university students — who are supposed to be among the best brains of society and our future leaders — organise themselves along national political lines? We expect Malaysians aged 21 and above to vote, yet shut national politics out of university campuses.
There will of course be some students who may blindly support the political party of their choice, but that’s precisely why more space for political debate is needed as part of a holistic education. Students of different political persuasions should be allowed to challenge each other’s ideas within and outside the ivory tower.
In short, it should not be neutrality that we seek for university campuses, but originality and diversity of thought.
After all, as Datuk Hishamudin Yunus, one of the learned Court of Appeal judges in the landmark ruling said: “Universities should be breeding grounds of reformers and thinkers, and not institutions to produce students trained as robots.”
Holistic review still needed
What the amendments have merely achieved is to let varsity students join political parties. The Act still falls short of granting more academic freedom to not just students, but faculty and universities as institutions.
The Higher Education Ministry still maintains a stranglehold over public universities’ management with its power to appoint of vice-chancellors and members of the Board of Directors, when such matters are better left to the academics.
And unlike students in the 1960s, current student bodies do not have financial independence. They are at the mercy of the university administration for funds to organise activities and thus, the type of activities they can hold on campus.
If we truly want to create a vibrant, autonomous academia and nurture young, bold leaders in our universities, a thorough instead of piecemeal review of the UUCA is crucial.
by Gan Pei Ling / 2 August 2010 © The Nut Graph
SOME government officials have recently come up with “creative” ways to solve the problems of teenage pregnancy and baby dumping in Malaysia. To curb teenage pregnancies, the Education Ministry said it was encouraging students to submit written pledges that they would not engage in premarital sex. To solve the problem of baby dumping, Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam announced that the state planned to set up a special school for pregnant teens.
These suggestions may seem well-intentioned for some. But they are actually problematic. So what if students submit a written pledge? Youths who are curious about sex and want to experiment would do it before marriage anyway. And as Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil has pointed out, the girls who are placed in Malacca’s “special school” will likely be stigmatised, creating other problems for them.
Instead of offering piecemeal solutions, what we really need is to get to the root of the problem of teenage pregnancies. Plus, it’s unfair to expect the government alone to be responsible for the problem.
Empowering, instead of preventing
What really is the root of the problem? Is it really that teenagers are having sex outside of marriage and should be stopped? Or that teenagers who find themselves in such situations don’t know how to protect themselves because they haven’t been taught?
If anything, the “chastity” pledge demonstrates the Education Ministry’s attempt to impose a narrow moralistic view about sex on young people. Such attempts have failed in other countries, including in the US. And even if some of us believe that young people should not have sex before marriage, we should not withhold important information about safe sex and contraception from them. Doing so would amount to a gross disservice to our youth.
Indeed, we cannot compel anyone – youths or adults – to strictly adhere to moral codes, in their private lives, that have been set by others. And if we continue to tell youths they shouldn’t engage in premarital sex in the same way that they should say “no” to smoking or drugs, we are actually telling them that premarital sex is something that is as ruinous, and shameful to boot.
But will these prevention methods really work? From the rate of teenage pregnancies and baby dumping that has been reported of late, clearly a better strategy is needed.
Our youth need accurate information on contraception and birth control so that they can protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections – including HIV/AIDS – and unwanted pregnancies, before or during marriage. Wouldn’t providing youths with information, instead of moralistic prohibitions, be more empowering in helping young people make responsible decisions about their bodies and relationships?
For example, many continue to subscribe to myths such as girls or women can’t get pregnant during their period or if the guy pulls out before he ejaculates. Such falsehoods can only be dispelled if parents or teachers create safe spaces for discussion for young people, instead of treating sex as something that is immoral and shameful.
As it is, without responsible adults to discuss these issues with, many young people turn to pornography out of curiosity. But many do not know how to view pornography critically and lack the skills and maturity to negotiate sexual relationships.
Hence, it is actually irresponsible for parents or teachers to avoid talking about sex and sexuality simply because they are “uncomfortable” with the subject. If parents and teachers don’t provide a place where young people can go to, where do we expect our youths to find out about responsible relationships?
Young people are often confused by the conflicting messages about sex and sexuality from the media or society. For example, the teenage characters in Gossip Girl have sex. We tell them “that’s the West” and premarital sex is not compatible with “Asian values”. But stories of couples having sex before marriage are shown in Korean, Japanese and Hong Kong dramas, too.
Young people hear politicians declare that scantily dressed women arouse men’s sexual desire and cause men to sexually harass or rape women. Yet the government continues to allow the advertising industry to objectify women’s bodies in ads.
Young people in Malaysia see gay couples in healthy, loving relationships in The L Word and Brothers and Sisters, yet sodomy is a crime, and pengkid are outlawed, and the media either ignore or demonise people of different sexualities.
How are young people supposed to make sense of all these conflicting messages without guidance from their parents, teachers or other adults?
One of the reasons many parents and teachers feel “embarrassed” talking about such subjects is because even they themselves may not know much about sex and sexuality. But isn’t it high time our parents and teachers, especially those teaching subjects related to sex, buck up and adopt a more open attitude towards sex and sexuality so that they can be responsible adults?
“In countries like the Netherlands, where many families regard it as an important responsibility to talk openly with children about sex and sexuality, this contributes to greater cultural openness about sex and sexuality and improved sexual health among young people,” according to HIV/AIDS charity Avert.
The organisation also says there is evidence that positive parent-child communication about sexual matters can lead to greater condom use among young men and a lower rate of teenage conception among young women. Avert further suggests that parents can view sex education as an ongoing conversation about values, attitudes and issues with their children.
Embarrassment or discomfort to talk about sex and sexuality is a lame excuse, especially if that may cause your child or student to get infected, or become a teenage parent.