Who cares about green lungs?

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 June 2013 © The Nut Graph

A fight to defend one of the last remaining green lungs in Istanbul sparked nationwide protests in Turkey recently. Despite that, the Turkish government has yet to reconsider its plan to turn Gezi Park into a shopping centre.

The same story occurs in most cities worldwide. When land becomes limited in urban areas, forests and parks are razed to make way for condominiums, malls and offices.

Looking at the Klang Valley, are we not losing our green spaces to commercial development as well? What are the benefits of retaining such spaces, and what can be done to preserve them?

(Source: wwf.org)

(Source: wwf.org)

Documented benefits

One of the reasons green spaces tend to be undervalued by town planners may be because scientists have not been able to prove its connection with our well-being until recently.

A study published in the Psychological Science journal in April 2013 found that city dwellers who live near green spaces tend to be happier than those who don’t. Tracking 5,000 households over 17 years, researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School found that respondents living in greener areas reported “less mental distress and higher life satisfaction”. The positive impact is equivalent to about a third of the impact of being married and a tenth of the impact of being employed.

“These kinds of comparisons are important for policymakers when trying to decide how to invest scarce public resources, such as for park development or upkeep, and figuring out what bang they’ll get for their buck,” lead researcher Dr Mathew White said in a press release.

Another new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in March 2013 confirmed that taking a stroll through a park helps to ease brain fatigue far better than walking through shopping or commercial districts.

If those studies weren’t enough, older research has discovered that children with attention deficit problems tend to focus better after walks in a park. “The researchers found that ‘a dose of nature’ worked as well or better than a dose of medication on the child’s ability to concentrate,” The New York Times reported in its health blog in 2008.

Defending green spaces

Kota Damansara forest (Wiki commons)

Kota Damansara forest (Wiki commons)

A new government under the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in Selangor after 2008 saw the Kota Damansara forest and the Ayer Hitam forest in Puchong gazetted as permanent forest reserves in 2010. A plan to develop the Subang Ria Recreational Park – the only open space left in Subang Jaya – was also defeated in 2011.

However, the people of Selangor should not take it for granted that the PR government will always defend green spaces. In the dispute over the Kelana Jaya sports centre, the state administration chose to ignore the Petaling Jaya Local Plan Two, in which the field was classified as an open space. It has refused to direct its state subsidiary to scrap its redevelopment plan.

In our capital city, Kuala Lumpur City Hall has yet to gazette Bukit Kiara as a forest reserve. While the Petaling Jaya side of Bukit Gasing is protected, the Kuala Lumpur side of the forest has been making way for housing projects.

Bukit Gasing residents who protested against a hill slope development project over safety concerns lost their legal battle in October 2012. To add insult to injury, the Kuala Lumpur High Court on 2 May 2013 allowed the developer to seek damages from the residents.

Participatory local governance

It is heartening that there are still citizens who would speak up, join forces and campaign hard to preserve the shrinking forests and parks in the Klang Valley. However, I think citizens need to be more proactive. Get to know your local councillors, state and federal legislator. Ask them about your area’s local plan. Find out what development plans are in store that would affect your neighbourhood.

In other words, build a relationship with your local council’s officers and your elected representatives. Don’t scream at them only when you discover the playground facilities near your taman have been vandalised, or when another high-rise building is coming up in your already congested town centre.



Keep an eye out for public briefings or dialogues held by your local council on development projects that would affect your area. Attend the budget dialogues held by local governments under the PR. Ask them how much they are spending on parks and playgrounds.

Hold political parties accountable. Make sure they appoint development experts, lawyers, economists, environmental experts and NGO representatives as local councillors to provide sound advice to your local government.

For far too long, citizens have left the responsibility of town planning to local councils. What sort of development do you want for your area? How many green spaces do you think should be preserved? What other facilities does your area need?

If our citizens do not invest time and effort to organise themselves and engage with local councils, the policymakers will implement development plans according to what they think the people need and want. But by building an active, working relationship with local governments, the people can keep the politicians and civil servants on their toes. Their voices against controversial projects will also carry more weight in time.

Gan Pei Ling believes an idle citizenry in a democracy breeds authoritarianism and irresponsible governments.

The contest for Selangor

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 April 2013 © The Nut Graph

SELANGOR is one of the hot states to watch in this general election. Both the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) hope to regain the country’s richest and most populous state.

Unlike Penang, Selangor has traditionally been a BN stronghold. In 2004, the BN won all of Selangor’s 22 parliamentary constituencies and 54 of the 56 state seats. But in a dramatic turn in 2008, PKR, DAP and PAS jointly secured 36 of the state seats.

Five years on, should the PR be given a second term to administer the state? How do the two coalitions’ manifestos and candidates compare with each other? And what are the likely election outcomes?

The PR’s record

Over the past five years, the first-term PR state administration in Selangor instituted open tenders, enforced the Freedom of Information Enactment, and carried out several legislative reforms to restore its state assembly’s independence.

In 2008, the young coalition appointed four women into its state executive council and made Haniza Talha the first female deputy speaker in Selangor. The state went on to create history and appointed women to lead the Kuala Selangor District Council in 2011 and Petaling Jaya City Council in 2012.

Under the PR, the state government has also tabled balanced budgets except for 2009 due to the global financial crisis. Past Auditor-General Reports have praised the state’s financial management record, which saw Selangor’s reserves hitting a historic high of RM2.6 billion in January 2013.

Under former Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, the administration also carried out several welfare initiatives. Aside from the better-known 20 cubic-metre free water programme, it was the first to moot and implement the idea of affordable housing for the state’s lower middle class.

It is hard to miss the striking similarities between the existing welfare programmes under Khalid’s administration and the promises made in the Selangor BN manifesto. Free water, affordable housing, cash incentives for newborns, free WiFi and free tuition for students are being promised to voters if they help the BN win back the state.

Khalid Ibrahim

The BN also says it would lower assessment taxes – and that’s about where the similarity ends. It remains silent on local government elections, which PR state governments have struggled to reinstate due to restrictons in the federal Local Government Act. Penang has since brought the federal government to court, while Selangor experimented with village chief elections in 2011.

It is also uncertain if the BN will carry on the practice of open tenders and legislative reforms kick-started by the PR. In contrast, the PR in Selangor have pledged to continue improving the state’s governance, including setting up an autonomous legislative service commission that will restore the state assembly’s financial independence.


The BN unveiled its list of candidates on 16 April 2013. It dropped tainted leaders such as former Menteri Besar Dr Mohd Khir Toyo and Datuk Mohd Satim Diman, but five of its candidates have since been accused of possessing bogus degrees.

And while the PR’s candidate for menteri besar is quite likely Khalid again if he wins, things on the BN side aren’t so clear. Glomac Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Fateh Iskandar, a high-profile Umno politician who was initially speculated to be the menteri besar-in-waiting, is not competing in the elections. So who will become Selangor’s menteri besar if the BN is voted in? Selangor BN coordinator Datuk Seri Mohd Zin Mohamed told The Star that four candidates had been shortlisted but remained tight-lipped about their identities.

Political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat believes the BN’s lack of a clear menteri besar candidate will hamper its campaign in Selangor.

“Selangor is one the most urbanised states and voters’ expectations are higher. People will ask. The BN needs somebody who can clearly compete with Khalid,” he told The Nut Graph in an interview on 21 April 2013.

Najib’s influence

BN national chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak has appointed himself to lead the campaign in Selangor. But Universiti Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMCEDEL) director Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Redzuan Othman thinks Najib’s influence could be limited.

Mohd Redzuan

According to the centre’s latest survey among 1,407 voters in peninsular Malaysia from 3 to 20 April 2013, Najib is only slightly more popular than PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The BN chief’s overall rating, at 54%, is only eight percentage points higher than Anwar’s 46%.

The study, which Mohd Redzuan presented to the press on 25 April 2013, also found the electorate’s general acceptance of the PR’s manifesto to be higher than BN’s manifesto.

Overall, the difference in support for both coalitions is only between three and five percentage points. Mohd Redzuan declined to reveal the exact figures but said both scored less than 50%. “It could swing both ways (on polling day),” he said.

The UMCEDEL survey did not focus separately on Selangor, but Mohd Redzuan told The Nut Graph that the state differed from other peninsular states with its high internet penetration rate. From previous surveys, the level of support for the PR has tended to be higher among voters who have access to the online media.

In 2008, most seats that fell to the PR were urban or semi-urban, while Umno retained most rural seats.


Wong predicts that the PR has a strong chance of retaining Selangor barring “massive” electoral fraud.

Assuming state-wide Malay Malaysian voters’ support at 35%, Chinese support at 80%, Indian and other ethnicities’ support at 40%, and a similar voter turnout rate as in 2008, Wong calculated that the PR should still be able to win 34 seats.

“That’s a very conservative estimate, taking into account the effect of Najib’s goodies including BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia),” he said. People in Selangor have benefited from Selangor PR’s welfare programmes as well, he added.

A more optimistic picture could see Malay support for the PR at 40%, and combined support from other ethnicities at 50%, thus enabling the PR to win more than 40 seats and secure a two-third majority in Selangor.

Still, some 25 state seats in Selangor are seeing three- to six-cornered fights with a flurry of independents and small parties in the fray. How will that affect the election outcome? Where former party members are contesting as independents, such as former Selangor DAP publicity secretary Jenice Lee and Sepang Umno Youth chief Datuk Suhaimi Mohd Ghazali, Wong said it would hinge on how far the political parties can pacify the disgruntled supporters.

“They may split vote for both sides,” he said. “It depends on the seats contested, but, in the bigger picture, I think they are not a threat (to the BN or PR).”

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.

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 http://bit.ly/TBHdocu. 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 freedomfilmfest.komas.org.

Solving Selangor’s water woes

by Gan Pei Ling / 20 August 2012 © The Nut Graph

Syabas logo (source: syabas.com.my)

Syabas logo (source: syabas.com.my)

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?

Water crisis?

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.

Khusrin Munawi (pic source: jais.gov.my)

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?

Non-revenue water

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.

Tony Pua (file pic)

Tony Pua (file pic)

“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.

Old spat

The recent water spat is but an extension of the three-year deadlock over the state’s water restructuring exercise.

Khalid Ibrahim (file pic)

Khalid (file pic)

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

(Jenn Durfey | Flickr)

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.

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.

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