Running Selangor

by Gan Pei Ling / 7 December 2012 © Selangor Times

DATUK Mohammed Khusrin Munawi reported to work amidst fierce dispute between the federal and state government over his appointment as the state secretary on Jan 3, 2010.

Having served at district offices, local councils and the state secretariat extensively, the 56-year-old is well acquainted with the nuts and bolts of the Selangor civil service.

But the Menteri Besar and his executive council (Exco) had then opposed Khusrin’s appointment as it was done by the federal-led Public Service Commission (PSC) without consultation.

Khusrin's profile

Almost two years down the road, Selangor Times spoke to Khusrin at his office on Nov 26 to find out how he has coped with the job thus far.

The father-of-four gives us a glimpse into his working life as the chief public servant in Selangor. He spoke candidly about the challenges he faces in tackling inefficiencies and corruption in a 25,000-strong state machinery.

Can you share with us what your main responsibilities are  as a state secretary?

We have 41 standing committees chaired by exco members on various subjects in Selangor. My main task is to coordinate and make sure state officers implement policies and projects approved by the state and federal government according to procedures and the time given.

How many employees are under the state?

We have about 25,000 people working in state agencies, the 12 local councils, nine district and land offices, PKNS (Selangor State Development Corporation) and PKPS (Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation).

They all report to you? 


What about other state-owned companies like KDEB (Kumpulan Darul Ehsan Bhd), SSIC (Selangor State Investment Centre Bhd) and such?

They report to the Menteri Besar but I’m also on their board of directors.

So what’s a day like for a state secretary?

I have meetings almost every day. Every Wednesday I have to attend the exco meeting and Thursday the MTES (Selangor Economic Action Council) meeting. So I only have three days in a week to meet with my officers, supervise, follow-up and make sure decisions made by the exco are implemented.

At the state secretariat

At the state secretariat

I have a post-exco meeting every Thursday morning to convey the exco’s decisions to the heads of department. Sometimes actions need to be taken immediately so we don’t wait for the minutes to act.

Every month I also have a meeting with all the district officers, local council presidents and mayors.

How is the exco meeting different from the MTES meeting?

The exco meeting on Wednesday is exclusive for exco members. We discuss papers prepared by state departments, UPEN (State Economic Planning Unit) on policies or district officers on land matters.

Issues that we cannot solve in exco meetings, we bring to MTES. We invite the stakeholders to MTES meeting. It’s more open. Let’s say we have a LRT (Light Rail Transit) project, we call the company to give a briefing, and the local council president, district officer and residents involved, whether they agree with the alignment and try to solve the problem.

We give an opportunity for everyone to air their views at MTES meetings before making any decision.

When we receive complaints from the public, MTES is where we bring the complainants and the state will listen to the communities’ grouses.

I see, right, I remember there were MTES meetings on the high tension cable projects in Rawang and Cheras?

Yes, we also call the state assemblypersons and members of Parliaments involved to voice their concerns.

Okay, what are the main challenges that you face in your job?

Compared to previous governments, it’s more challenging (for public servants now) because the current Menteri Besar wants everything to be transparent.

As Tan Sri (Khalid Ibrahim) often says, the public has a right to know what we do and Selangor is a developed state so most people know their rights. They want to know the reasons behind decisions made, not just by the state government but local governments as well.

And starting Jan 1, we will implement the FOI (Freedom of Information Enactment), so it will become even more challenging (for the public service). Most importantly we must always be transparent, we cannot hide things from the public.

There are still public complaints that the civil service is inefficient and unfriendly? What is being done to address this?

We have done a lot (to improve and streamline). For example, even though the federal government requires us to reimburse claims made within 14 days, in Selangor we have managed to shorten the period to three days. We process 80% of the claims from contractors or suppliers within three days. That’s our achievement in speeding up the public delivery system.

Also, previously it took weeks or months for the district and land office to approve the transfer of land titles, now if you want to sell your land you can get the approval within one day. Now operators of risk-free businesses (such as stationery and convenience stores) can get their licence within an hour of application.

Is this because the application process has been computerised?

Yes and we simplify the process by using checklists and make the process transparent. Now the public can also pay their quit rent and assessment tax through online banking or at post offices.

We are trying to improve the public delivery system, it’s an ongoing process.

But sometimes we still receive residents’ complaints that local or state authorities do not respond to their problems in time?

That I do not deny, there are still lower officers that procrastinate and delay the processes. We try our best to improve but public expectations are high and there is a lot that needs to be done.

We award departments or agencies that have provided the best services with RM25,000 cash grants to encourage them to continuously improve their delivery system. It’s up to the departmental chiefs whether they want to use the reward to organise a feast or trip for their staff.

What have you achieved over the past two years? Are you satisfied with your own performance?

There are many things still that I have to do, to say if I’m satisfied, I’m not. There are many things that still can be improved such as the speed we respond to complaints, procrastination and non-compliance of rules and regulations among civil servants.

I plan to go down to the ground to conduct spot checks next year because we have received complaints that our officers are not at the service counters. There have also been complaints that our officers are unfriendly and some rural villagers were scolded when they go to local or state departments.

The villagers came from afar because they have a problem they want us to solve, we shouldn’t add to their problems. This sort of incidents shouldn’t happen again. I was even told some were eating while serving the public. (Frowns) There is a code of ethics to how we should entertain the public. Our officers must always be ready to serve.

We are also trying to get Chinese and Indian officers to serve villagers that cannot speak Bahasa fluently. Public expectations are high so public servants cannot be complacent and laidback anymore.

If something cannot be done, we must train our officers to tell the truth. For example TOL (Temporary Occupation License) application on road or river reserve cannot be approved according to state policy. I have instructed our officers not to sell any plans and tell the applicants upfront such land applications will not be approved by the state. We have to explain nicely even if they were to get angry because that’s the state policy.

What about corruption complaints against the civil service? How serious do you view the problem and what steps are being taken to address it?

We still receive complaints about corruption but not many. We have a report from MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) every two months. The amount of investigation cases and arrests have reduced over the years. Compared to the private sector, cases involving the public service are fewer.

It also helps that now we have a very clear policy of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. No lobbying is allowed unlike last time. With low profit margin, contractors also cannot afford to give bribes.

Still, I view this problem seriously and we work closely with MACC in sand-mining operations and raids on massage parlours. We invite them to be part of the team (as observers).

Corruption is between the person who receives (the pay-off) and the person who bribes, so we hope the public can report to MACC.

What about local enforcement officers? Many graft allegations from the public implicate them.

It’s not easy to find evidence and catch them. We need proof. I think if we can simplify the work processes, with a checklist and very clear SOP (standard operating procedures), then few can manipulate it. If the process is complicated, then it may leave loopholes and room for corruption.

For instance, the problem with the enforcement process for illegal cybercafes is that the errant operators have bargaining power. They can appeal to the enforcement officer to reduce their fines according to the bylaws. That’s why we insist MACC officers to be on site during the raids because we don’t want the bargaining process to happen and open the doors for bribery. The enforcement officers must also go in one team instead of one, two persons. It’s harder to bribe an entire team.

It’s not just in local governments, any enforcement department must have clear SOP and close supervision of the subordinates to reduce opportunities for corruption. There will always be staff who try to exploit the loopholes.

Also, every civil servant has to declare his or her assets before accepting a job confirmation and promotion.

What if they choose not to declare or try to hide?

We can take disciplinary action against them if they failed to declare their assets. Last time it was hard to enforce this rule because we collect the information manually but now everything is in the computer system. If you sold your house or bought a new car, you have to update the system.

How is your relationship with the Menteri Besar and exco now?

I have no problem with the Menteri Besar or the exco members. There may be some negative perception in the beginning but it’s not that they don’t accept me but the way of appointment. The PSC appointed me without consulting the state government, that was the main issue. According to the state constitution, the state government should be consulted on the appointment of state secretary, legal adviser and financial officer.

As a government servant, I serve as a professional to the government of the day and make sure all state policies are implemented and followed by the state’s civil service. Politicians come and go. Regardless of the political parties in power, we as government servants must implement the policies as long as they are within the laws and regulations.

As a civil servant, do you face challenges dealing with politicians? For example, sometimes they may not understand SOP in the public service?

We had a few problems before. Previously some exco members made direct purchases without approval from the state treasury and exco. But we have explained to them we must adhere to treasury instructions.

We have a procedure. Before making a purchase, we must have a budget and approval from the exco or state financial officer. Let’s say we want to buy T-shirts for students, we cannot just walk into a shop and buy. We have to get at least give five quotations, compare the prices and buy from the supplier with the lowest price. The supplier must be licensed and registered with the Finance Ministry as well.

We need to get the state financial officer’s approval if we want to make direct purchases. They were new (to being in the government) so some of them didn’t understand but now they are okay.

If we failed to adhere to the procedures, the MACC and auditor-general will be after the civil servants, not the politicians. They come and go. We will be held answerable because we are the ones who sign the cheques and purchase orders.

Even the allocations for state lawmakers, we have guidelines on what and how it can be spent. We have to tell them when they fail to follow the guidelines.

So far the assemblypersons have been compliant?

Yes, they also do not want the MACC or auditors to investigate them right?

Any message you want to add to the public?

I still receive many complaints from the public about our officers but I hope they can remain polite when communicating their grouses.

For example, I’m receiving more than 10 emails a day from a complainant hurling personal insults at the Petaling Jaya mayor for the traffic congestion problem at Kelana Idaman. There are already plans to widen the road but the project will take some time to implement, to acquire the land and get the allocation for the construction.

Some members of the public refuse to understand even after we have explained. We have our limitations too, we are not Aladdin. It’s demoralising when receive personal insults like these.

We are here to serve and we will try our best to resolve your problems but please be polite.

The hushed riot of Sabah

News reports of the riot

by Gan Pei Ling / 14 Sept 2012 © Selangor Times

DID you know there was a riot in Sabah in 1986? Fish bombs were detonated at cities and towns. Buildings burned. Cars flipped over. Five people died. However, no one was held responsible and the instigators got away.

“I want people to know that it happened,” local filmmaker-writer Nadira Ilana, who wasn’t even born when the incident took place, told Selangor Times in an exclusive interview on Sept 7.

The 25-year-old Sino-Dusun from Kota Kinabalu only found out about the riot from her father last year. It inspired her to research the mayhem and subsequently submit a proposal to Pusat Komas to turn it into a documentary.

“The riot only happened in Sabah but the story is relevant to the entire country. It shows what could happen after the fall of a political regime,” she said.

Nadira’s 30-minute film “The Silent Riot”, also known as “Rusuhan Tersembunyi” in Bahasa Malaysia, will be shown at the PJ Live Arts Theatre, Jaya One next Saturday in conjunction with the Freedom Arts Fest.

She shares some information about the cause of the riot, the politicians and civilians who lived through it and how she feels about this black episode in Sabah’s history.

Can you give us some background about the riot, how did it happen?

It started in 1985 when PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah, then an opposition party) first came to power. The previous ruling party, Parti Berjaya, had became increasingly unpopular among Sabahans. So [Tan Sri] Joseph Pairin Kitingan, then Berjaya’s deputy president, left the party to form PBS.

PBS was registered 47 days before the state elections in 1985. It formed a secret coalition with Usno (United Sabah National Organisation), which was headed by Tun Mustapha [Harun], to topple Berjaya.

Berjaya had swept 44 out of 48 seats in the 1981 elections so they were confident. But when the election results were announced on the midnight of April 22, 1985, PBS had won 25 seats, Usno 16 and Berjaya only had six.

Usno tried to contact PBS but there was a communication breakdown. In a panic, Usno called up Berjaya to form a coalition straight away. They then raced to the Istana to swear in Tun Mustapha as the Chief Minister. He was sworn in at 4am but was removed on the same day as the appointment was illegal. Pairin was sworn in as the rightful Chief Minister at 8pm the same night.

Did the riot begin then?

Not yet. Tun Mustapha filed an injunction against the State Governor. As far as Usno and Berjaya were concerned, he was still the Chief Minister. They didn’t want fresh elections. They were afraid PBS would win again. The riots didn’t happen until March 1986 just as the court verdict was to be announced.

Fish bombs did start going off in Kota Kinabalu and the other towns from May 29, 1985 but the incidents were sparse. These bombs were meant to shock people, not to kill or harm. But if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could get hurt.

What happened in March 1986?

On the first day of demonstrations, about 1,000 Usno supporters gathered in front of the Kota Kinabalu High Court. That’s when several fish bombs started going off throughout town. A curfew was imposed for 39 days. There were other smaller demonstrations and arson attacks in Sandakan and Tawau too.

The demonstrators, led by Usno and Berjaya leaders, took to the streets of Kota Kinabalu to protest Pairin’s appointment because he was Christian. The anomaly was that a majority of the demonstrators were Filipino Muslims – many undocumented and legally unable to vote.

Many Sabahan Muslims didn’t have a problem with Pairin and supported him.

The demonstrators were given food, money and they stayed at the state mosque with their wives and children for a week. They were being used. These people were incredibly impoverished. Many of them were political or economic refugees from the Philippines. They fled to Sabah in the 1970s to escape the conflict in Mindanao. Tun Mustapha, being a Muslim Bajau-Suluk, was the first to open Sabah’s gates to them. (He served as the Chief Minister from 1967 to 1975.) So a lot of them felt indebted to Tun Mustapha and were demonstrating on his behalf.

Tun Mustapha led the demonstrations at the mosque?

Not himself although he did address them personally at the mosque. It was mostly Usno leaders who led the demonstrations in Kota Kinabalu. The smaller ones outside of town were led by Berjaya members.

So the riot started on March 13, 1986?

Burnt vehicles in KK

Several bombs went off in a span of two hours that day. Parents panicked and went to fetch their children from schools. There was tear gas from the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) who was trying to contain the situation. Cars were being flipped over by demonstrators. They were also throwing rocks into shop windows.

People were terrified. By 10.30am the city was empty.

My father told me he was walking from his office to visit a friend when a bomb went off a few yards away from him at an Esso station. The roof collapsed and the windows shattered. He ran down the street and another bomb went off under his colleague’s car.

That must have been scary.

I was taken aback by how casual my dad was when he spoke about it. I was like “What?!” and he was like “It’s just a little bomb.” It’s scary to think that he could have been hurt. When I asked if people could die from the bombs, he said “Yeah, I guess but we didn’t die.”

After that I asked a lot of people about it and I think most of them have forgotten that it was a big deal. The newspapers weren’t censored. Their reporting was actually quite detailed. But the people who experienced it…They no longer talked about it. Maybe they don’t want to think about it. I don’t know how they came to terms with what happened.

Some people denied there was a riot. They told me “it was just a demonstration”. Someone even told me “yeah there were bombs but it’s Sabah, not Bosnia.” I thought: “Wow, these people are tough.”

Most of the people from my generation don’t know anything about the riot.

Five people died right? Was anyone caught and held responsible for the bombs and arson attacks?

img_2014It was estimated that 1,763 people were arrested during that period but they were all released after about a month. A newspaper vendor, fisherman, carpenter and two unnamed women died but who will stand up for them?

People suspect that the riot was manufactured to create a state of emergency so that the federal government can come in but that never happened. (The federal government had previously stepped in and proclaimed emergency in response to political turmoils in Sarawak in 1966 and Kelantan in 1977.)

Instead, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad proposed a peace formula whereby PBS, Usno and Berjaya should form a coalition but this never came to fruition. Pairin dissolved the state assembly and Sabah underwent another election in 1986.

It was quite commendable that PBS kept their cool and kept the locals out of the riot.

Who did you interview for your film?

A mixture of politicians and civilians. People who were there, especially petrol station operators. A lot of petrol stations were attacked.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Who were the politicians?

Tan Sri Herman Luping who was the adviser to PBS at that time. Datuk Yahya Lampong, a former Usno member. And Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor from Berjaya. He was state Finance Minister in Sabah.

What were the challenges you faced in making the documentary?

It’s the first time I’m doing a documentary. I’m more accustomed to narrative films. I only have 30 minutes but I wish I had more time. There’s so much to this story.

What were some of the things you wish you could have included in the film?

I wanted to include why Berjaya lost in the 1985 elections, add more interviews with civilians. When Usno first lost to Berjaya in the 1976 elections, there were fish bombs too, but not to the scale of in 1986.

I also had to cut out one of the interviews I did with a friend who was in school on that day. Demonstrators were marching past her school. Students were frantically trying to get home. The demonstrators surrounded her school van and rocked it. They were holding rocks, pieces of wood and chanting loudly. She was only 14.

They managed to get away. She thinks it’s funny now but back then she said she thought she was going to die that day.

So what do you think about the entire episode after making the documentary?

I will never join politics! (Laughs) I think my job as a filmmaker is hard enough. As a storyteller, I can’t control how people will react to my story. It will take a life of its own once I put it out there. But I hope people will respond by having constructive discussions rather than reactive ones.

I’m not interested in pointing fingers but I do want people to know what happened and acknowledge this incident as part of Malaysia’s history.

I feel that the best way for us to move forward as a society is to be honest with ourselves, about our past no matter how dark. It’s part of who we are and we grow from these collective experiences. That’s why we value history.

Remembering Teoh Beng Hock

by Gan Pei Ling / 7 Sept 2012 © Selangor Times

Mysterious fall. Open verdict. Suicide. It’s been three years since political aide Teoh Beng Hock was found dead at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)’s office in Shah Alam but the cause of his death remains contentious till today.

On Sept 22, a documentary based on the tragedy, titled “Rights of the Dead”, will be shown for the first time during the Freedom Arts Fest at the Petaling Jaya Live Arts Theater at Jaya One.

The 25-minute film is directed by Tricia Yeoh, who obtained a RM6,000 grant from Pusat Komas in May to make it.

She raised another RM6,000 from public donations to complete the film.

Yeoh, a well-known newspaper columnist and policy researcher, was working as a research officer for the Selangor Menteri Besar when the tragic incident occurred.

She subsequently became the state government’s liaison officer for the long-drawn case.

The 30-year-old has since left the Selangor government in April 2011 to join a private marketing research firm as its director of business development.

She shared with Selangor Times in an interview on Aug 27 why she decided to take time off from her job to make the documentary, the challenges she faced as a first-time filmmaker and what viewers can expect from the film.

Why did you decide to make a film about Teoh Beng Hock?

Yeoh interviewing Beng Hock’s father Teoh Leong Hwee, 59, and mother Teng Shuw Hoi, 59, at their home.

I think it was important to record what happened. He died when I was still an officer in the Menteri Besar’s office. I was kind of like the liaison officer for the case, representing the Selangor government. I dealt with the lawyers, [state-appointed forensic pathologist] Dr Porntip [Rojanasunan] from Thailand, the family…and I always felt there was no real conclusion to the case.

It’s been three years since he passed away, his death still affects the family and friends. But you know the general public has short memories, they eventually forget. I wanted to capture some of the moments in time, to have something for people to watch, maybe for his own son to watch when he is older.

When I left the Selangor government, this was one of the things that was still unresolved. This is also my own way of coming to a resolution, dealing with the emotions that I was going through when I was working on the case.

I applied for the grant from Komas last year but I didn’t get it so I applied again this year. It’s been something that has been on my mind for a long time.

Did you know Teoh Beng Hock personally?

I only knew him in passing. I’ve seen him at press conferences, at the lift (at the state secretariat). We would say “hi” to each other but we never really spoke. So even his boss [Selangor executive councillor] Ean Yong [Hian Wah] was quite surprised that I had taken such a big interest in the case.

I think I was very affected by it because I thought it could have happened to me, as one of the officers [working for the Selangor government]. I felt very bad for the family members who were forced to be thrust into the public sphere as a result of what happened.

Is this your first film?

Yes, I’ve never done anything related like this before. It was quite stressful. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. Compared to writing about policies, there’s a lot of creative processes involved in making a documentary.

Pusat Komas gave me guidance on what roughly needs to be done but I still needed to seek my own help and advice. On the technical part, I had to completely rely on my cameraman and sound person. I didn’t know the names of the equipment, for example the difference between a mixer and a recorder but now I do. (Laughs) I had a video editor as well, and someone to do the graphics, audio tracks. (Local artist) Jerome Kugan wrote a song for the film.

I had a really good team of people and I’m really thankful.

What’s the angle of the film?

Teoh Er Jia, now three, never knew his father.

Originally I wanted to make the film from the son’s point of view, but we realised that would be very difficult. Who becomes the voice? If he was older maybe I could get him to talk but he’s too young now. (Teoh Er Jia, now three years old, was born after Beng Hock’s death. His fiancé Soh Cher Wei, 31, was already pregnant when the tragedy occurred.)

So eventually I decided to tell the story from the point of view of someone who was there, who was working behind the scene to find out what happened. It’s a personal journey of investigation and exploring, so the viewers will have a glimpse into my thought processes.

We explored the institutions that were involved, the MACC, the police, the forensics behind it and the judiciary. I looked at these four institutions and how they may have been compromised in order to come to a certain conclusion. I talk about the political context but I’m looking more at the flaws of the institutions, that we’re subjected to weaknesses in the system because these institutions are not independent.

I also look at the personal perspectives of the family as well. But I do want to drive home the point that it’s because of this flawed system we have that somebody died. We’re all part of the system. We as Malaysians, it could have been anyone of us. If you don’t have a fair and independent judicial system, who can you rely on at times of trouble?

Did you manage to interview representatives from these institutions for your film?

I got to speak to the MACC. I actually requested an interview with everyone, the police, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the MACC lawyers, the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into Beng Hock’s death…I contacted everybody but only MACC agreed to an interview. I was pleasantly surprised and I’m quite glad that I got them.

I had also tried to speak to the head of the RCI, Tan Sri James Foong, but he declined to give an interview and said everything [to be said] is already in the report. That’s a fair statement. It’s his prerogative. The rest didn’t respond to my [interview requests].

Apart from the difficulty of getting hold of the authorities, can you share other challenges you faced in making the documentary?

One of the challenges was that there was just so much information but I couldn’t put everything in. That’s the process in filmmaking but as a researcher I found it quite frustrating and sad that I had to leave out several things that I felt were important because of the time limit.

If I have more funds in the future I might do a longer version, a different cut, maybe an hour long. I already have the footage, I have so much material.

The other challenge was to find a fresh perspective because this is a case that everybody has read or knows about. I want to bring something new, different to the table, so I tried to do this by putting in things people may not have known or have forgotten. For example, there was an SMS (Short Message Service) sent by a MACC officer to her senior, telling the senior to tell other officers don’t lie anymore, this is a big case. This came out in the RCI. If you’re asking people not to lie, the implication is that people have been lying.

What were some of the important details that you had to leave out?

Dr Porntip, a well-known forensic pathologist from Thailand, claimed she was pressured against testifying at the inquest. She had maintained that Beng Hock did not commit suicide.

There were a lot of questions raised on the evidence found on his body, I couldn’t focus on every single thing, for example the drag marks on the shoes. And the fact that he didn’t have a defensive wound on his wrists. Usually if you fall from height, the person will suffer a colles’ fracture because it’s a natural reaction from the body to break the fall, even if it’s a case of suicide. But in this case, there wasn’t any fracture so it raises the question of whether he was conscious when he fell. There was an anal injury as well, which Dr Porntip said was unusual for any fall from height. These are some of the details that don’t gel with the fact that he committed suicide that I couldn’t look at in the film.

And then there was the window that he was said to have fallen out. It was not tested for DNA and the reason the police gave during the inquest was that they had done fingerprint dusting first, but because the window surface too dusty, they couldn’t get any fingerprints out of it either. When we asked Dr Porntip what’s the first thing you would do when you look at this crime scene, she said the first thing is actually to look for DNA.

You really have to decide what are the best things to put in the film. I had to leave them out because there was no time. It’s a huge case.

And you interviewed the family as well for the film?

Yes. The wife, the sister and the parents.

How are they?

I don’t talk about how their life is now in the film but I think the sister is still very much affected. She’s the one who’s the most emotional about it still. I think it’s very hard for her to move on because she was the closest to him…The parents are still hurt, the mom thinks they’re still waiting for something to happen, some answers.

They’re still hoping for some answers?

I’m not sure “hope” is the right word to use. They’re quite burned out. I think all of them are very cynical (by now) about whether there can be any answer (to the cause of his death). What else can they do to get answers? They want explanations. Obviously they can’t accept that it was a suicide. They want answers but they can’t expect it realistically, so they’re left in this conundrum.

I’m not just talking about their family. Other people have died in custody as well. My documentary didn’t talk about the other victims but I want people to think about them also. This is just one case, one story, there are countless families whose children have also died in custody, and because of what? It’s because the system is too highly politicised and there’s no independence.

It’s ridiculous when you think about it. Innocent families are suffering because of the way our institutions are being run. (Lapse of silence)

You speak to the colleagues as well?

I spoke to his colleagues at the state (secretariat) and former colleagues at Sin Chew Daily, the lawyers, I also went to Bangkok to interview Dr Porntip.

Are they still affected? 

I think when you talk to them, you can still sense that they are angry. It’s not just anger but dejection, a sort of dejected anger. Even for me, if you were to ask me am I angry? Yes I am, but it’s a sort of tired anger. It’s very emotionally-draining for anyone who has followed the case through.

When it happened, when you were following the case, you would feel emotionally or psychologically affected by it. It’s quite haunting. Even during the research for the documentary, you get drawn in and you remember what happened in the past.

I mean, of course everybody has to move on, the lawyers have to take on new cases, people have lives to lead, but when you think back, maybe we can move on but the family will never do.

Do you think your documentary serves as some sort of closure for the case?

I don’t know whether it serves as a closure. I’m not seeking to give you answers in the documentary. I don’t want to say who was at fault, who was in the wrong politically but I do want people to realise for themselves what’s the real issue here.

I want the film to serve as a reminder that this case is part of a bigger problem. People who are not politically-conscious yet should realise that it’s because of politics, our system of governance, that this sort of tragedy has happened.

The film trailer is available on Facebook at Freedom Arts Fest, formerly known as Freedom Film Fest, is an annual event organised by Pusat Komas. This year’s theme is “Democracy: Who’s the Boss?” and Yeoh is one of three local filmmakers who won a grant to make a documentary based on the theme.

Find out more about other human rights films and the screening schedule at

Restoring the House’s independence

by Gan Pei Ling / 16 March 2012 © Selangor Times

The Special Select Committee on Competence, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) has become a household name since it conducted the high-profile public inquiries into the Wives of Selangor Welfare and Assemblypersons and Members of Parliament Charity Organisation (Balkis) in 2009. In an exclusive interview with Selangor Times, Selcat chairperson and Speaker Datuk Teng Chang Khim spoke about the steps PR has taken to strengthen the law-making branch of the state.

Datuk Teng Chang Khim

Can you share some of the legislative reforms PR has implemented since 2008?

For a start, we’re the first state assembly to telecast our sittings live via the Internet. We publish a journal now after every sitting to inform the public about what laws and motions were passed. We’ve also increased the days of sitting from an average of six to 20 days a year so that members of the House have more time to debate bills before they’re passed.

In 2008, we set up Selcat and three new select committees that specialised in scrutinising;

1)    state statutory bodies and government-linked companies (ABAS),
2)    local governments (PBT), and
3)    district and land offices (Padat).

Previously the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which only has seven members, has to scrutinise everything the executive is doing. Now they can focus on state departments only.

So instead of seven people, now we’ve 28 state lawmakers from four select committees – ABAS, PBT, Padat and PAC – to watch over the executive.

We appointed two opposition members into each of the seven-member select committees to reflect the proportion in the House.
We also appointed an opposition member to chair the PAC for the first time in Selangor.

Finally, we’re also in the process of enacting a new law to establish a service commission for the House, so that our management and administration are independent of the executive.

Why did the Selangor State Assembly set up Selcat? And what’s the difference between Selcat and the three new select committees (ABAS, PBT and Padat)?

It’s actually a common practice for house committees to conduct public hearings in advanced democracies like Canada, United Kingdom and Australia but this has never been done in Malaysia.

We want to follow the Commonwealth benchmark. But our worry then was, holding public inquiries involves legal procedures and we didn’t have experienced lawyers among the select committees’ members, nor supporting staff with legal expertise to back them up.

That’s why Selcat was formed. It’s meant to specialise in conducting public hearings. We got help from the US Senate, they gave us a two-day training, taught us how the hearings should be carried out.

So now the select committees will refer to Selcat if there are issues of public interest and we’ll call for a public inquiry.

For example, we called for a public inquiry on PKPS Agro Industries Sdn Bhd (mismanagement of RM90.3 million of federal loans given out in 2005 and 2006) last week because ABAS felt the issues should be highlighted to the public.

Selcat has become an icon now. We’ve increased the public’s expectations. Now people are asking why Parliament and other states haven’t set up a similar committee to hold public hearings.

We’ve incorporated ABAS, PBT and Padat into the Standing Orders like the PAC. This is a very important institutional reform. If the next government wants to abolish these select committees, they would have to go through two assembly sittings and amend the laws.

But Selangor Umno deputy chief Datuk Seri Noh Omar has called Selcat a “kangaroo court” that only exposed things but never punished anybody. What’s your response to that?

Selcat, like any other house committee worldwide, only has the power to summon and query. It does not and cannot have more power than the state assembly itself.

The most Selcat can do (and has done) is to call for public inquiry and try to find out what’s happening by asking the state entities like Kumpulan Semesta (Sdn Bhd) to appear before us.

We don’t have the power to seize their documents or search premises. That’s the job of the police, and where it involves corruption, the MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission).

If the opposition has proof that there are criminal elements in sand-mining operations in Selangor, they should lodge a report with the police or MACC. In fact, the MACC has conducted investigations (in 2010) and didn’t find (any wrongdoings).

I also read in Sinar Harian today (March 12) that Umno Youth Selangor wants Selcat to follow the Parliament’s PAC practice to appoint non-politicians into the committee. But the Parliament’s PAC is made up entirely of members of Parliament, all of whom are politicians. (Chuckles)

I’m astonished by their ignorance in the running of a democracy. Either that or they’re trying to confuse the people.

You’ve been a state lawmaker in Selangor since 1995, you were also the opposition leader in the state assembly from 1995 to 1999 and 2004 to 2008. Comparing then and now, do you see an improvement in the quality of debates in the House?

Definitely. When I was in the opposition, there were very few opposition members. The BN executive was only interested to get laws passed. They weren’t serious in debates.

Whereas now, you can see that PR backbenchers are very active during debates. They give good suggestions and aren’t afraid to criticise their own government, it’s encouraging.

To my surprise, the opposition, which has been making lots of noise outside, has been relatively dormant in the House.

They’ve not tabled any good motions so far, 95 per cent of the motions have come from the Backbenchers’ Club.

But in Parliament, the opposition members are more active in tabling motions and submitting private member’s bill. They aren’t doing that here. The Backbenchers’ Club is more active in the Selangor State Assembly. They’re helping the opposition (to raise issues).

You mentioned earlier that the House has limited resources to support its select committees. What other challenges do you face in implementing reforms?

In a democracy, the three branches of government, legislature, executive and the judiciary, should check and balance each other. But the practice in Malaysia is that the legislature acts more like the rubber stamp of the executive. The Speaker is only a figurehead. The House’s administration comes under the executive. The members of the House have no say.

In Selangor (and other states), the House secretary takes orders from the state secretary. The hiring and firing of the staff in the legislature is controlled by the executive.

Imagine now, the House secretary can be transferred if the executive doesn’t like him or her. Our legislature isn’t independent from the executive.

So we must go back to the Commonwealth practice, where the legislature has its own service commission to take care of the hiring and firing of staff. The House secretary will take orders from the service commission, not the executive.

We’ve drafted the bill called SELESA (Selangor Legislative Assembly Service Commission Enactment) to set up this service commission, but the executive has yet to agree.

Why? Isn’t it a good thing to strengthen the House’s independence?

The executive is hesitating because the bill will take their powers (to control the legislature’s administration) away from them.

But they’ve forgotten that these powers belonged to the House. The House, as an independent branch of the government, should have full control of its own budget and staff.

If PR is elected into government for another term and you’re appointed as Speaker again, what other reforms do you hope to implement?

Firstly, we must get SELESA passed. Once the House has control of its own budget, we can set up departments specialising in law, accounting, corporate practices, public administration, town planning and more to support our select committees and members of the House.

Once we’ve established the specialised departments, the departments will research the issues and advise the select committee on questions that should be raised in the meetings and public inquiries.

Then the check and balance provided by the House on the executive will be more professional and effective.

Besides that, I want to bring the House nearer to the people through public education. This has always been on my mind. We need to bring students here and educate them about the House and its history: Why is it important? How does it pass laws?Who were the important figures – Speakers and opposition leaders – that have stood in this House?

Once we have control of our budget, then we can implement a structural education programme.

Related post: Challenging and exciting times

Liew Seng Tat: “We’re still outsiders”

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 December 2011 © The Nut Graph

LIEW Seng Tat is one of the most promising indie filmmakers in Malaysia. His debut feature film Flower in the Pocket (2007) has won numerous international awards. Previously, his short films Bread Skin with Strawberry Jam and Not Cool had also won top prizes at the Malaysian Video Awards.

The full-time filmmaker is now working on his second feature film In What City Does It Live?. On 2 Dec 2011, he released his latest short film Welcome to Kampong Radioaktif to raise public awareness on the proposed Lynas rare earth plant in Gerbang, near Kuantan, Pahang. It is one of four parodies in the Survival Guide untuk Kampong Radioaktif series.

(All pics courtesy of Liew Seng Tat)

“I’m not an activist, I’m just a filmmaker. I’m not against the rare earth plant; I know we need rare earth, but I don’t think the location is suitable. By doing a film with some parody and slapstick comedy, I hope it will make people laugh and think about the issue,” he told The Nut Graph on 22 Oct 2011.

In the interview, Liew shares his fond memories of growing up in Jinjang, the largest Chinese New Village in Malaysia; the incredible foreign support he has received to make Malaysian films; and his hopes for a country that still makes him feels like an “outsider”.

TNG: Where and when were you born?

I was born in 1979 and grew up in Jinjang, Kuala Lumpur. It has a bad reputation [for having] lots of gangsters. But it was safe for me. My family and relatives lived together in a wooden house. We never locked the main door and we didn’t need a fence. We had two mango trees in front of our house, so we had a neverending supply of mangoes. Anyone who passed by could just pluck them.

There were many dropouts and restless youths – I wouldn’t call them gangsters – hanging around kopitiams. Sometimes they broke into fights, breaking chairs and tables. I used to help out at my mom’s noodle stall at a kopitiam, so I’ve seen some of the fights, but never really bloody ones [like we see in Hong Kong gangster movies].

Can you trace your ancestry?

I’m Hakka. My grandparents were born here, so I’m third-generation Malaysian.

Can you share some of your fondest childhood memories?

I remember we had a huge kitchen with a fireplace. We still used charcoal to cook then. And there was an open well, too. Behind the kitchen there were about 10 mini pools made of cement, which my uncle used to rear small fishes to supply to the aquarium. I used to play with the frogs and tadpoles in the pools (smiles).

Three-year-old Liew riding a bicycle around his old home in Jinjang, Kuala Lumpur

I also kept tortoises, about 10 of them. They just kept breeding and a few times their eggs went missing. Now that I think about it, probably the rats or some other animals ate them.

It was a fun childhood. I used to catch fighting spiders, too. I kept them in a box like a pet and fed them with mosquitoes or flies. We used to let them fight and watch them kill each other. [In hindsight], it was very brutal…

How was school like?

I looked forward to going to school – SK La Salle Jinjang – as a kid. We flew kites, played gasing… Nowadays, you don’t see kids playing these games anymore. Instead they play video games, [with] iPads and iPhones.

We were very adventurous back then. When I was around Standard Three (nine years old), I went camping with my sister and her friends. They were only two years older than me. The four or five of us took a bus to Templer’s Park and set up camp in the middle of a jungle. We only realised it [might not be] safe when night fell. It was pitch-black and there were lots of strange animal sounds. That’s when I realised we shouldn’t have been there all on our own.

I also looked forward to going to school on Saturdays for the co-curriculum activities. I was in the Boy Scouts and we went on a few trips with our teachers. Once we went to a Malay [Malaysian] teacher’s kampung, I can’t remember exactly where it was but I’ve very fond memories of the trip. There we were, all these Chinese [Malaysian] kids in a Malay house. It was great to get to know the family. I remember we had durian for breakfast with rice, and went to the orchard for treasure-hunt activities.

Did you always know you would become a filmmaker?

I wanted to study advertising originally in university, but my father wouldn’t allow it. So I chose 3D animation. My father agreed because he thought it was a course with a great future. At that time, multimedia and IT (information technology) courses were very popular. I liked what I studied. After graduation, I worked as an animator for a few years.

Then Tan Chui Mui, my university classmate, asked if I was interested in making a short film. She knew I liked to tell stories. I got a script with her help, made the video, submitted it to the Malaysian Video Awards, and I won. I used the prize money to make my second short film, won again, and I thought: “There must be something going on here.”

Then I made the third and fourth short film, and finally my first feature film. Everything happened organically. Flower in the Pocket won awards in [the] Busan [International Film Festival in South Korea], Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Italy… I didn’t expect such an encouraging response. I was travelling for an entire year touring with the film.

Directing on the set of ‘Welcome to Kampong Radioaktif’

The success of Flower in the Pocket opened many doors for me. I was invited to the Cannes Film Festival residency programme for about five months and wrote my second feature film script there. They paid for my accommodation and private French lessons, and hooked me up with other directors to encourage me to write.

I also represented Asia at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, where I met Hollywood scriptwriters. It felt weird to present a Malaysian script to Hollywood people, but they liked the script and gave me a lot of advice. They also understood that I come from a different culture, so it was up to me whether to adopt their advice. They really cared about my story and they could remember what was written in the script, page by page. I felt like an orphan being adopted for the first time, to have people show you so much care and support. It was unbelievable.

I’ve been refining my second script, it’s called In What City Does It Live? and now it’s ready to roll. I’m just waiting for the complete funding to be in place. I’ve received foreign grants, but I hope to get some local support to complete the funding process so I can start shooting soon. Flower in the Pocket was shot with a low budget, small cast and crew in a short time. This time I’m more ambitious, I want to do it with a proper budget, cast and time.

Family portrait. Liew is being carried by his uncle, far left.

How do you connect to these stories as a Malaysian? Are there any instances where you struggle with your identity?

As a Chinese [Malaysian] in this country, you’re used to not getting certain things and support. I wouldn’t have made any films if I sat there and waited for support.

I’m very proud to be a Malaysian when I’m overseas. I introduce myself as Liew Seng Tat, a filmmaker from Malaysia. I don’t have to explain I’m a Chinese Malaysian. And I become a Malaysian ambassador, explaining our culture and peoples to international audiences, many of whom are watching a Malaysian film for the first time. Tourism Malaysia should pay me for helping to promote the country!

But back here, I’m just a Chinese. An outsider. No matter how much I love this country, I don’t feel I belong here. Although I’m a Malaysian who was born and bred here, there are still people who think I’m a pendatang. We still hear nasty remarks asking Chinese Malaysians to go back to China.

Don’t tell me it’s just coming from one person. If one person thinks like that, he or she is representing a group of people. We’re still considered outsiders whether we like it or not. But I’m hopeful with the new generation. People are more politically aware now. Some of my friends who have never voted are now very passionate about politics and the country.

I think the people are getting smarter. [Politicians] can’t lie to us as easily as before.

Liew with other filmmakers at the Rotterdam Film Festival in Netherlands in 2008. His film ‘Flower in the Pocket’ won in the Rotterdam Tiger Awards.

What kind of Malaysia do you hope to see in future?

A Malaysia that cherishes the arts, creativity and culture. I’m not talking about Istana Budaya or traditional dances. Many people don’t realise the importance of arts and creative thinking. Our culture and education system is obsessed with marks and spoonfeeding the young.

I remember at the Berlin Film Festival, the organisers brought thousands of school children to the film festival. I thought they wouldn’t pay attention to the details in the film, but they did. During the question-and-answer session, the German children asked me critical questions. I was really impressed.

When I look back at our own country, do we give our children such international exposure? How often do we bring them out of the classroom to expose them to different cultures and languages, and open up their minds?

The book Found in Malaysia Volume 2, which was launched on Malaysia Day 2011, is now available in bookstores for RM50. It features previously unpublished interviews with Asha Gill, Lillian Too, Khairy Jamaluddin and Baru Bian. Volume 1 of Found in Malaysia, featuring 54 earlier interviews, is currently in its second print run and retailing at RM45.

Amber Chia: 1Malaysia won’t happen in a day

by Gan Pei Ling / 26 September 2011 © The Nut Graph

(All pics courtesy of Amber Chia)

WHEN she was 18, Amber Chia flew to Kuala Lumpur from Tawau, Sabah with only RM300 in her pocket to fulfil her dream of becoming a model despite her parents’ vehement opposition.

Chia stumbled around for some time before she found the right modelling agency. In 2004, she got her big break when she was chosen as international spokesperson for Guess Watches. She has since represented various international brands like Sony, L’Oreal and Mitsubishi.

Apart from modelling, Chia has acted in Chinese movies such as Possessed, and made guest appearances in sitcoms and TV shows in Taiwan and China.

The 30-year-old started her own company Amber Creations in mid-2009 and a modelling school Amber Chia Academy in August 2010. She married her manager Adrian Wong in March last year, and gave birth to their son Ashton Wong in September.

Her year-old son and business are her main focus now. The model-turned-businessperson shares her humble beginnings and future aspirations in an interview on 29 July 2011 at her academy in Petaling Jaya.

TNG: When and where were you born?

I grew up in a fishing village in Sekinchan, but I was born in Ipoh on 14 Dec 1981. There was no hospital around Sekinchan or Kuala Selangor, so my mother went to Ipoh to give birth to her six children. I’m the third child. I’ve an elder brother, elder sister and three younger sisters.

My family moved to Tawau, Sabah when I was nine.

Eight-year-old Chia

What was it like growing up in a fishing village? What are some of your fondest childhood memories?

My dad was a fisherman. He would go out for days to fish. I had to help my mum take care of my three younger sisters and I learnt to cook when I was very young.

We stayed in a wooden house and had lots of animals: ducks, geese, turtles, cats, dogs and birds. Although my family was poor, my siblings and I had fun growing up together. We played together, climbed trees, or went to the beach to catch sea snails. The place we stayed at was always flooded, but we were happy when it happened because then we didn’t have to go to school (laughs). I used to cycle to school.

Can you trace your ancestry?

My dad is Teochew and my mother is Hokkien. I can speak both dialects.

My paternal grandfather came from Chaoyang in China, but my dad was born here in Sekinchan in 1950. I don’t really remember my paternal grandfather because he passed away when I was very young.

What about your mother’s side? Where did your maternal grandparents come from?

Chia and her parents

My maternal grandparents were farmers from Anshun, China. My mum was born in Perak. She married my dad when she was 26 and moved to Sekinchan.

My mum told me they got married after their first date. They watched a movie together. Their parents wanted them to get married. Although it was an arranged marriage, and they sometimes fought when I was young, my parents love each other dearly.

How was life in Tawau when your family moved there?

My elder sister, elder brother and I each went to stay with a different foster family or relative as my family had financial difficulties. My three younger sisters stayed with my parents. It was difficult to be separated from my parents. I was sad and missed them very much, but I understood the situation.

My foster parents treated me well. I consider them my parents’ friends as they were also from Sekinchan, originally. My foster father has already passed away, but I still keep in touch with my foster mother. They have four sons and they are like my brothers, too.

I moved back with my parents after primary school and started working part-time. Compared to Sekinchan, Tawau was a larger town [with more job opportunities]. I’ve done all sorts of jobs: kindergarten teacher, shopping mall promoter, and helped my dad sell fish in the market.

When did you decide to leave for Kuala Lumpur?

After I finished SPM, I told my parents I wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur to work. I’ve always wanted to be a model. I wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur to look for modelling agencies that could help me fulfill my dream. But when I told the people around me, they always dismissed it.

I even fought with my parents because they had negative impressions of the modelling industry and were against the idea. They were worried I would take the wrong path, all on my own at a young age in the city.

But I was very stubborn, so I bought an air ticket and only told my mum after I had arrived in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t be so daring anymore as I’ve started a family and have responsibilities.

I only had RM300 in my pocket when I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Looking back, it was quite amazing I managed to survive to be who I am today.

It was very tough in the beginning, I didn’t know where to go, what to do or who to go to. I tried looking up several modelling agencies, but many were more like makeup academies, and the people were more interested in selling me their makeup courses, which I couldn’t afford.

Chia took her first studio photos at age 14

It took me a pretty long time to find the right agency. That’s the reason I told myself when I made it big, I would open my own academy to help those who want to join the modelling industry but don’t know where or how to start.

I love challenges. I believe if you work hard and have a [fierce] determination to achieve your dream, you can do it.

Is there any part of your identity that you struggle with, as a mother, woman, model, or Chinese Malaysian?

The older generation like my grandmother always favoured boys, so my elder brother was pampered in the family. He would always be the one who got the chicken drumsticks. Whenever anything happened, my brother was right and I was wrong.

That’s also the reason my mother continued to have children, because my grandmother wanted to have one more son in the family. That’s the gender part I’ve had to struggle with.

As for my identity as a Chinese [Malaysian], when I was growing up in Sabah, I had friends from different races in school, so I didn’t feel I was any different.

What about when you come to Kuala Lumpur?

I didn’t feel much difference as well.

With her family

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like to see for your children in future.

Although I don’t feel the differences, I know what the government is trying to achieve with [its] 1Malaysia [project]. I believe it cannot be done in one day as language is a major barrier. Not everyone can speak fluent Bahasa Malaysia or English. Malaysians need a common language, and it could be either Bahasa Malaysia or English.

But I hope we can achieve 1Malaysia. We’ve lots of interesting cultures, and in the local entertainment industry, you can see more movies being made using different languages. There are also different ethnicities in the modelling industry.

I believe one day we can become a united country.

The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is available at all good bookstores for RM45. Found in Malaysia Volume 2which was launched recently, will also be sold in bookstores soon.