Thinking Allowed

Oh No, He’s Staying On

A Happy Birthday to Dr Mahathir who turned 74 on Dec 20. When interviewed by the media on that occasion, he quipped that by the time the next elections are called he would probably have a stiff neck and problems with his eyesight. A few days later he named Pak Lah as his successor should he quit as UMNO president in the near future. Signs that Mahathir would soon be stepping down? In fact he only stated this was "most likely" – he didn’t say "definitely" - his last term as PM.

Even if Mahathir does not contest the elections again, due in 2004, nonetheless, he would have chalked up 23 years as prime minister, a record others would find difficult to break. Nor should they try to do so. After all no one individual is indispensable and should hold power for so long. In fact, the common wisdom is that there ought to a change at the apex of power to prevent abuses and to encourage innovation. This is one of the hallmarks of any democracy.

In the US, the president is only allowed to serve two four-year terms. In the Philippines, the president may now only hold office for a single six-year term while in Indonesia, the limit is two four-year terms. And elsewhere, like in South Africa, democratic-minded leaders like Nelson Mandela – now that’s someone who may be considered "indispensable" for his country if we’re into indispensability – even chose to step down early to pave a smooth transition to the future.

This is why the Barisan Alternatif proposed a limit of two terms for the prime minister and the mentris besar in their election manifesto. No doubt there are some countries where the leaders serve on and on. But they are not exactly democratic countries. At any rate, these long serving leaders like Suharto and Marcos have often been overthrown and forced out of office ultimately. There’s a silver lining in the dark clouds.

The People’s Palace

Gawking at the "People's Palace": "colourful, neat and clean, just like Disneyland"

Apparently, some 50,000 Malaysians formed long queues to partake of the PM’s Hari Raya open house in his new official residence "Seri Perdana" in Putrajaya. Asked what he felt the people thought about "Seri Perdana", Mahathir replied "This is not my house, it is the people’s palace". The PM is right. After all, the people did pay for the building costing an estimated RM million. The cutest comment by one of the visitors was that Seri Perdana and Putrajaya was "colourful, neat and clean, just like Disneyland"!

We hear that Abdurahman Wahid, Indonesia’s new president, has been a little unhappy with his present presidential palace in Jakarta. Renovations are underway. No, he’s not building a new Disney-like "palace for the people". Apparently, Gus Dur was concerned that many of his Nahdatul Ulama supporters who had journeyed long distances from various parts of rural Indonesia to see him – often to drop in for a chat as in times past - were turned away from the palace and were forced to spend a lot of money for accommodation in Jakarta’s hotels or losmen, even worse, to spend the evenings wandering in the streets or sipping kopi bubruk all night long in the warung.

It was partly Gus Dur’s fault. For he spent a lot of time during the first couple of months of his presidency overseas, trying to shore up international support for his new government. Many of these rural folk were not aware that ‘appointments’ were now needed to see Gus Dur, unlike in the past. Hence when told that the president was in Peking or Washington, used to waiting for Gus Dur due to delays in traveling from one desa to another in rural Indonesia, they merely replied, okay, they would wait ! They would not return home until they saw the new president. To anticipate these eventualities, new guest houses are now being built within the presidential palace grounds. Now this is more like a "people’s palace".

However, there’s no such thing as a "people’s palace" in Britain. No such things as open houses and free food. If the people want to visit the palace, or more correctly some part of the palace, they queue and pay to get in. You even have to pay to see a palace which is in ruins. A palace is a palace. And it’s usually associated with the royalty. British prime ministers do not live in palaces.

Traditionally, the British Prime Minister has his office in No 10 Downing Street and lives in the flat upstairs. The next door neighbour in flat No 11 is the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the minister of finance) whose office is downstairs. Apparently, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor has been living in the more compact No. 10 flat while Tony Blair and family have been living in the larger four room No 11 flat since 1997. Now that Mrs Blair is expecting her fourth child, Brown is moving out to allow the Blairs to occupy his flat as well. No palaces for British PMs for sure. Only a compact flat or two in Downing Street.

Millennium Quiz

Now that the Christmas, New Year, Hari Raya and school holidays are over and many Malaysians have made their annual visits to Penang, they must have been caught in one or another traffic jam in Jalan Masjid Negeri/Green Lane where construction of the one-lane Autopont flyover is underway.

Here’s a quiz then for all of you.

Why did Dr Teng Hock Nan, the former President of the Penang Municipal Council build the one-lane 3.51m wide flyover ?

a) The Klang Valley was getting into the limelight too often what with its Twin Towers, KLIA, Putrajaya, Seri Perdana, longest open house queue, etc. There was also the Langkawi threat in attracting the tourist dollars. Now that the earlier effort by Mdm Kee Phaik Cheen in getting Penang into the Guinness Book of Records by organizing the longest beach buffet has turned off, rather than on, the tourists, Teng thought that the narrowest flyover in Malaysia might do the trick in wooing the tourists back.

b) Teng was laying a trap for opposition leader Kit Siang who became distracted with the RM7.95 million "gostan flyover"which was awarded without open tender. Kit Siang who was challenging Teng for the Kebun Bunga state assembly seat spent precious time measuring the width of the flyover, questioning the cost of the project - in other words as the MCA would say "all talk, no action" - forgetting that the flyover was located in Green Lane, outside Kebun Bunga, while Teng was busy checking the drains, the roads, the markets - all action. Not surprisingly he won.

c) Teng was simply forward looking. He wanted not only to ease traffic congestion in Green Lane but hoped that should the floods reach Green Lane – a likely event since more and more parts of the island are now susceptible to floods whenever there’s a heavy downpour – at least some Penangites could park their cars without worrying whether they can start their flooded engines in the morning. Problem is, we would need many, many more one-lane flyovers.

d) Actually, Teng is into "small is beautiful". Quietly, he is critical of Dr M’s fetish for mega projects. Building the one-lane autopont is his way of protest.

Celebrity Woes

More on Teng’s antics during the recent elections. Responding to requests from opposition parties to hold political party functions in community halls and facilities owned by the council Teng said that party functions in these places would only be permitted if ministers, chief ministers or state executive councillors graced the function concerned.

Yes, we understand that it has become almost a tradition that for an event to get publicity in the media, a "celebrity" in the form of government leaders or well-known politicians should be invited to officiate the function—even though they can be quite painful bores and a waste of precious time. Only then will the event be seen as newsworthy and hence attract a pack of journalists from the mainstream media.

True, government departments do it; certain NGOs do it; youth groups do it; even certain groups of academics do it. They all understand very well that their activities are likely to achieve more publicity if they invite these "celebrities".

But, Dr Teng, before you get further entangled in your warped thinking, you must realise that we’re not talking about run-of-the-mill type of functions. We’re talking about functions organised by political parties that are opposed to the ruling coalition. Who in her right mind would officiate a function that is critical of what you and your political party represent? Would, say, Gerakan’s Kee Paik Cheen be gracious enough to grace the meeting of the DAP’s women’s wing? (Is this what they mean by "smart partnership"?)

Put differently, it’s highly unlikely that a government leader would go to a function organised by and for an opposition party. This also means, to remind our dense selves, that the opposition’s attempts to gain access to the council’s facilities will be an uphill struggle, even near impossible.

What we’re trying to say here, Dr Teng, is be frank to yourself and fellow Malaysians. Just say that you will not allow political parties other than the BN to make use of the council’s facilities for their party functions even though these facilities are paid for and maintained by taxpayers’money. Come to think of it, this ‘ruling’of yours doesn’t sound very democratic or caring either.

Great Minds Think Alike

Mahathir and Zimbabwe’s Dr Robert Mugabe (another Dr M!) have been known to be great buddies. This excerpt from an article on Mugabe in the August 1999 issue of Reader’s Digest titled "Zimbabwe’s Master of Misrule" reveals an uncanny similarity in the official scepticism in both countries towards police brutality:

The story that led the 10 January 1999 edition of The Standard, Zimbabwe’s Sunday newspaper, was startling: reporter Ray Choto had discovered that 23 disgruntled army officers were under arrest for planning a coup. But the reaction of President Robert Mugabe’s government to the publication of leaked information was not long in coming. Choto, and newspaper editor Mark Chavunduka, were detained illegally at army headquarters in Harare, the nation’s capital.

Both men were taken to a bare room with blood on the walls. There they were stripped, beaten with pieces of timber, electrocuted and half drowned by interrogators demanding to know the sources of the story.

"We’re briefing the president every hour because he is very disturbed," the pair’s torturers declared. "He has signed your death warrants."

The journalists survived without revealing their sources. When they finally appeared in court, their limbs and faces were badly bruised and swollen. Scoffed Moven Mahachi, the minister of defence: "They must have scratched themselves."

Self-inflicted, huh? Now where have we heard that before?