By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri DiRaja Dr Zambry Abd Kadir is, in all honesty, someone who cherishes the limelight. Seldom would he decline an invitation to speak to the media for he is one shrewd politician who understands the meaning of publicity, both good and bad.
In the lead to General Elections 13 in May 2013, Zambry had made good use of this platform to disseminate his policies, intentions and visions so they would reach a far wider audience. And being an opinionated individual, my views are often sought by people from both sides of the political spectrum. For I speak without a forked tongue like many do.
When dispensing my two cents worth I have always remained impartial and as practical as possible. The reason behind this stance is simple – an honest answer will elicit an honest response, however distasteful it may be.
And that has been the manner of my interaction with the Chief Executive Officer of Perak since the day we met during the pre-launching ceremony of Visit Malaysia Year 2007 at the Lumut ferry terminal on Monday, January 1, 2007. At that material moment Zambry was very much in the shadow of Tajol Rosli, the Menteri Besar.
I had on a couple of occasions been picked to be on the panel of Zambry’s talk show over the local radio network, Perak FM. The opportunity, however, has become scarce of late. So when I received news of an impending talk show, I was thrilled. My presence was required not as a panelist but to cover his appointment with Perak FM on the morning of Thursday, March 20. I was a listener rather than a participant this time around.
The discussion was on developments taking place in Perak, something of interest for the general public. It was a progress report of sorts for the Barisan Nasional-led state government since it came to power on February 6, 2009. Economics is a boring subject and unless one has a grasp of the subject matter, any in-depth discussion can be a huge turn off.
Zambry, as expected, started with the oft-quoted annual Gross Domestic Product growth rate of the state. He mentioned a figure which he claimed was higher than the national average. He touched on the government’s fiscal policy to alter aggregate demand, subsidy cuts and price hikes for petrol, electricity and sugar and how these measures had affected the rakyat.
I was somewhat sceptical of his arguments considering that the only sources of revenue for states within the federation are from land, water and religious tithes. The federal government does not pay individual states a premium for the taxes it collects from its citizenry. Therefore, the only matter of relevance during the morning discussion was the state government’s handling of its scarce resources – land and water.
It is a known fact that illegal cultivation and land clearing are two major problems in Perak. Some of these activities take place in water catchment areas and in designated forest reserves. The consequences, should these activities continue unchecked, are considerable.
The MB described ways of tackling the problems, including some anecdotal incidents of how cunning some were in conning the authorities. The iconic Royal Belum Forest Reserve, a mainstay of our tourism industry, is not spared, as illegal logging is rampant. He was, however, silent on ways to overcome the scourge, something which I had expected the panelists to ask.
Zambry spoke at length on non-revenue water; a loss he attributed to the state’s antiquated piping system. A complete overhaul would cost the government some RM1 billion, he said. The 29 percentage loss, according to Zambry, is relatively low, as some states suffer much more.
He did touch broadly on the availability of water for consumption during the current dry spell. The reservoirs in Taiping and Ulu Kinta have enough water to satisfy the needs of households in Perak. Again the emphasis was on the 20 cubic metres of water given free to the poor monthly. No questions were posed on plans to ensure a continuous supply of drinking water for Perakeans in the long haul. The panelists seemed subdued.
I am somewhat bemused with the contradictions and the vagueness. The truth may not be forthcoming, as that was all that Zambry was prepared to tell. Openness and transparency, qualities which I have long cherished, remain a pipe dream. The rakyat is being fed with information on a need-to-know basis. Therefore, the maxim that the government knows best still holds true five decades after Independence.