Friday, April 29, 2011

TMI: The government needs to exit the software ecosystem — by Ditesh Gathani

The government needs to exit the software ecosystem — Ditesh Gathani

TMI: April 28, 2011

APRIL 28 — The government of Malaysia has had a chilling effect on the growth of the Malaysian software ecosystem, and needs to make an exit in order for the sector to blossom.

It’s hard to know where one should start commenting on the latest fiasco around the proposed 1 Malaysia email system. Perhaps more than any other single software project in recent times, the 1 Malaysia email proposal has highlighted the deep rot within the software industry in Malaysia. The public outcry has been loud and consistent. The subject even comes up during office meetings, as a form of collective outrage against yet another silliness we’ve been asked to endure.

For those unaware of the proposal, the gist of it is that Tricubes, a distressed public listed firm, won a bid to provide Malaysians with an email service. That’s right — to provide Malaysians with an email service. Oh, the best part of this proposal is that Tricubes would be charging the government RM0.50 for every email sent by the government to Malaysians.

If it sounds incredible in any zany sort of way, you must be new to this country and I must warmly welcome you to Malaysia, fondly known among its residents as Bolehland. Magical, amazing and outlandish things happen in this country which are entertaining in a tragic sort of way. So tragic that it’s worth creating a newspeak word to properly describe the tragedy.
tragedic. adjective. Recursive definition to describe tragedies so outlandishly tragic, that its tragedic

As tragedic proposals go, all things considered, this one had the distinction of being pretty dumb. Free email systems have been around for a while and the need for yet another email system is rather doubtful.

This particular proposal was, in fact, not even Tricubes’ little invention to make money off public coffers. Neither was it a deep nefarious plan by the government to spy on and control all Internet activity as the popular blogger Sakmongkol has alluded to. The proposal really came from Pemandu’s entry point projects, and much like all world domination plans, it had a simple beginning.

You see, the idea was mooted in the NKEA labs. It was discussed, tabled, approved and signed off. As these things go in the government, due process was followed and the idea got escalated up the food chain, punted over to Mampu to execute and subsequently bunted off to TriCubes to implement. Nothing extraordinary, just standard big organization bureaucratic SOP’s at work.

For the sake of fairness, it must be noted that some chaps politely attempted to call out the silliness of the idea whilst it was being deliberated in the various meetings. But they were far too polite to strongly drive the point across that it was a really dumb idea.

You see, there is one golden rule about big organisations: You simply cannot call out ideas as being dumb, not publicly at least. Nobody is quite sure why you can’t do so but rumour has it that doing so would lead to an unpleasant and uncollegial atmosphere, and as can be expected in such situations, a complete breakdown of law and order in society would be the result.

Oh, you would also be branded as being dickish for calling out dumb ideas. Such social conventions have ensured that politeness has almost always triumphed over intelligence in big organisations, and incompetence has continued to comfortably rule the roost.

Anyway, I digress. Let us get back to the topic at hand.

Who has suffered as a result? Tricubes’ reputation has certainly taken a beating but all things considered, they were already in the process of getting delisted anyway and as such, not exactly flying high. The news of them winning the RM50million 1 Malaysia email bid jacked up the firm’s stock price and the company had an increased market cap of RM40million at the very least. Not too shabby, really, for a dumb idea.

The Malaysian government too has come out well by cleverly distancing itself from the entire affair, with our prime minister punting the buck to the private sector (read: Tricubes, the not-so-failing public listed firm).

Mampu, on the other hand, has been fiendishly quiet so far, pursuing the well-known strategy of burying their head in the sand and hoping for the best. The strategy seems to have paid off in that they have been spared much of the public wrath. So, that really just leaves only Pemandu out in the cold.
Incidents such as this one don’t help Pemandu’s reputation. They have been tasked with re-engineering the national economy and the best we’ve seen for the software ecosystem industry is free web email? Oh, come on guys. Surely you can do better. Borrowing the slogan from Obama’s campaign “We can do better” may be a suitable new direction for Pemandu.

The government, even by generous accounts, has had a marvellously Homeristic tragedic track record in re-engineering Malaysia’s software ecosystem, and the 1 Malaysia email fiasco is the latest in a long line of failed government software ambitions.

MSC Malaysia, the key strategy vehicle for the government’s software ambitions, was set up in 1996 with grand plans of replicating the success of Silicon Valley in South East Asia. In this period of time, we have seen two Internet booms and countless wildly successful Silicon Valley startups. Google, YouTube, GroupOn, Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, PayPal, so on, so forth.

Silicon Valley has not been merely successful in the period of time but successful beyond comprehension. Countless millionaires were certainly created, but a large number of billionaires as well with fortunes larger than the national GDP of a number of countries.

In this interweaving period, MSC Malaysia has successfully missed out on riding every single technology wave. That includes online video, search technology, social, payment systems, biotechnology, group buying … and, let’s not forget, web-based email. The consistency in failing to ride the wave is, in itself, shockingly impressive.

For purposes of comparison, Hotmail was a free web-based email system, launched in the same year as MSC Malaysia, and the first real big Internet phenomenon responsible for kicking off mass market usage of the World Wide Web. In this light, our technology ambitions not only as old as Hotmail but, in fact, identical to Hotmail because after 15 orbital years, the best technology project our economic-reengineering-overlords have come up with is free web-based email service… powered by Hotmail technology. The irony would have been entertaining if it wasn’t so painfully tragedic.

Conservative estimates of technology advances put it at a non-linear doubling rate every 18 months. In layman’s terms, that simply means that for every two years of innovation that happens outside the technology industry, the technology industry manages to produce three years worth of innovation. This is a non-trivial rate of growth that has held true throughout the history of Silicon Valley and has been the primary factor responsible for the tremendous innovation in the industry.

Successful software technology firms go through an entire full growth cycle from startup-level-maturity to world-domination-maturity within 10 orbital-year spans. The classic textbook example which illustrates this observation is, of course, Google.

It was launched in 1998 (two years after MSC Malaysia) and within the span of a decade, it completely dominated the tech industry, leaving its competitors dazed and incoherent. If the 1990′s belonged to Microsoft, Google certainly left their mark on the first decade of the 21st century. It is still not clear if Microsoft will survive Google’s onslaught — most are betting on an Apple and/or Facebook dominated decade.

But I digress.

The important thing to take away from this is that MSC Malaysia was set up, by conservative estimates, 23 technology years ago. The government, through Mosti/Mimos (generally) and the MSC Malaysia vehicle (specifically), have taken on themselves to engineer a software ecosystem in Malaysia.

Not just a normal software ecosystem but a world-class software ecosystem — one that is revenue generating, profit-making, being a beacon of progress and responsible for catapulting Malaysia into the 21st century as well as showcasing possibilities that can be achieved in a non-Western environment. As far as masterplans go, the MSC Malaysia masterplan was pretty good — timing and strategy wise.
However, the devil, as they say, is in the details. The government ministries and agencies responsible for achieving the MSC Malaysia plan implemented the following recipe for success:

•    Identify technology trend.
•    Write up blueprint and masterplan to ride and monetize technology trend.
•    Determine key projects, KPI’s and budget.
•    Outsource key projects to private sector.
•    Provide grants to private sector for R&D, explore commercialization opportunities.
•    Review achievements, congratulate self, publish press release.
•    Lather, rinse, repeat with new technology trends.

This recipe was a refinement of an earlier recipe, used in the era before the web became big:

•    Identify R&D trend.
•    Determine key deliverables from grants.Provide grants to private sector for R&D.
•    Review achievements, congratulate self, publish press release.
•    Lather, rinse, repeat with new R&D trends.

Remember the DAGS grant? The MGS grant? The TechnoFund? The Science Fund? SMIDEC grants? The plethora of grants and grant money available for the cunning entrepreneur propped up the bottoms lines of a number of companies.

The quality of the grant proposal didn’t quite matter because there was a lack of depth in regulatory oversight. There was nobody to call out bad proposals, nobody to identify hackety software implementations and nobody to push for quality over quantity. It was a numbers game, pure and simple.

The general thinking was that with millions of ringgit of grant money handed out, surely someone and somewhere would be enticed to build great software. Nobody sought to question this line of thinking and as a result, the system was quietly gamed over the years.

Allegations of corruption made its way into coffee shop talk and became common lore in the tech industry within a few years. In fact, there were companies specializing in corrupting the disbursement process.

Knowing the right people became more important than having the right idea to execute. Companies were setup to game the system and multiple levels of outsourcing were established. Business plans were flimsy, as one would expect them to be, because the considerable effort was being put into building up connections instead of building up companies.

This was a game played equally well by all involved parties. Companies would manoeuvre to get the grant money and/or software projects, outsource the actual development to a third-party company, show progress by delivering half-baked products and upon completion, repeat the process again with another grant or software project.

Monitoring and approving officials, on the other hand, would simply check off items on their list and be able to meet their KPI’s in delivering the grant money to intended recipients and/or completing the projects. Everybody wins, right? Not quite, because no good technology comes out of playing this game.

In recent years, this system was replaced by a refined system of handouts in the form of smaller sized grants and larger sized software projects. The government’s approach in spearheading technology direction was achieved by identifying key growth areas and funding the implementation of software projects by the private sector in these areas.

The private sector was also asked to demonstrate the viability of the key focus areas through grants. Again, the idea was that this would stimulate the private sector by having them focus and invest in the key areas. That too did not quite materialize as everybody simply focused on gaming the system by investing minimal effort in actual technology development and technology management.

Does anybody remember the four flagship applications launched under the MSC Malaysia umbrella? What happened to the Telehealth initiative? Are Malaysians enjoying improved standards of healthcare? What about the MyKad project? Has it taken off in the private sector as a secure ID platform as originally envisioned? RM7 billion and more was invested in the smart school projects.
Where are our smart students?

The rot goes deep in all directions. I remember MDeC pushing the private sector to adopt CMMI methodologies to reach world-class software development standards. Whilst this initiative was being ballyhooed in the local media as the new new fix for all that plagues software development initiatives in Malaysia, elsewhere in the world eXtreme Programming (XP) and Agile Development methodologies took hold. Needless to say, the CMMI initiative has not succeeded in its attempt to build world-class software.

Remember the pre-seed grants? Where are our world-class start-ups? Remember the eContent grants? Where is our digital content? Remember the initiative to retrain graduates? Where are our world-class graduates? Remember the numerous training programmes aimed at providing skilled labour workforce? Where is the skilled labour workforce?

It’s not just a question of cluelessness on the part of bureaucrats. It’s also about politics and bad decisions getting the way of a progressive technology culture. The previous Mosti minister back-pedalled on the use of open source technology just about when open source technology was being used by every single major software powerhouse in the world.

Politics and unbelievable pressure from certain quarters was responsible for the minister’s decision, and the resulting stultifying impact on the industry was powerful. The one opportunity we had for a progressive technology culture went out of the window in that instant.

The very same minister took liberties in overriding decisions of Malaysian standards committees in an ISO standard deliberation by forcing the Malaysian committee tasked with reviewing international standards to submit a “No comment” instead of their unanimous (unfavourable) technical findings. Again, politics and pressure overrode good sensible decisions made by those attempting to do their jobs.

There are many more stories of government missing the boat on driving the software sector in the country. Think about it — 23 technology years. That’s a really, really long time to fail to produce a single world class company. In the parlance used by computer scientists worldwide, the intersection between the set of their masterplans and the set of resulting world class companies is the null set.

Failed technology management. Failed technology development
One follows the other and that’s the key insight here. Compared to the private sector, governments (and any big organizations) are horrible at technology management, and as a corollary, at technology development. They should be the last people tasked with building the software sector, because as history has shown, they will flub it at every possible opportunity.

Intuitively, the reason for this is obvious. Technology management and development is a difficult science. It requires a rare combination of deep technological knowhow, product management and an oracle-like ability to marry market analysis with technology trend spotting. Even the most prescient investors and technology pundits in San Francisco often get aspects of technology management wrong — what more Malaysian bureaucrats on a government salary.

Let’s take Facebook’s News Feed feature to illustrate the difficult in building and managing technology. The success of Facebook can be traced almost entirely to the Facebook News Feed feature. Remove the News Feed and all you’d have on your hands are photo, video, blog components with the ability to make friends. In other words, you’d have MySpace or Friendster instead of Facebook.

The quintessential aspect of Facebook is the News Feed. Facebook’s genius was in pulling your friends activities (photos, videos, blogs etc) and pushing them to a continuously updated personalized News Feed. The value of a News Feed seems obvious today, but before Facebook made it ubiquitous, nobody understood the value of such a feature. The very foundation of Facebook’s success was in the invention of the News Feed — it was sufficiently advanced technology, one that allowed Facebook to make MySpace and Friendster irrelevant.

The million dollar question is simply this: Would have any Malaysian technology bureaucrat realized that the future was social and invested accordingly in it? Would they have written up masterplans on going social and funding “social entrepreneurs”?

Would they have understand the impact that social would have on the world? Would they have understood the value of the News Feed feature, much less the incredible engineering effort it takes to build such a feature? Would they have had mentorship programmes in place to train technology entrepreneurs going social? Would these programmes have been successful?

If you didn’t think they would have bet on social, you’d be probably be right. The thought that government bureaucrats would be so technologically prescient strikes us as being ridiculous because intuitively we understand that building technology roadmaps and funding technology requires understanding the said technology. And understanding technology requires the ability to hack on technology, which in turn, requires an engineering mindset, not a policy or political or bureaucratic mindset.

All of the wildly successful technology companies were driven by entrepreneurs with deep understanding of technology. Not a single successful technology company was driven by direct government technology policies or government roadmaps. Not a single one.

Imagining that governments can drive the software sector is simply a proposition that does not compute. The best the government can do is to stay out of the software industry and let the market thrive on its own merits.

There is a simple way to visualize the benefits of no government involvement. Instead of one entity, the Malaysian government, making big bets on the next big thing, we could have had a hundred thousand technology entrepreneurs furiously attempting to make money from the varying shades of one hundred thousand different ideas.

When thinking of it from this perspective, it is little wonder the Malaysian government has failed in building Malaysia’s software ecosystem. We kept pooling our eggs in one basket and every single time we flubbed it.

For every wildly successful Google, Twitter or Facebook, there would have been 99, 997 failed entrepreneurs. Which is fine because the three that succeed, succeed wildly beyond belief and end up raising the economic tides for the failed entrepreneurs.

Because we’ve never succeeded in this regard, we’ve had to suffer economic woes and our poor showing on the world economic competitiveness index is reflective of this.

The great government experiment has failed as it has in every single instance around the world where big governments have been in play. Capitalism simply does not favour big governments. The best the government could do to boost the software economy is to get out of it.

Observations and analysis of Silicon Valley’s success indicate that the free market works pretty damn well. We would never have seen the likes of 1 Malaysia email in a free market environment. Capitalism rewards ingenuity and hard work, and punishes the lazy and the underperforming.

To help us move forward and build a working software ecosystem, the government needs to withdraw its grants and big projects. No more key focus areas and handouts. No more handouts and training exercises. No more junkets and technology conferences.

Just let the ecosystem be. Let them compete on their own merits, as they may be, and find their way. Let them make their mistakes and learn from it. Trust me, with the pressure of having to succeed, they will learn fast.

And who knows, they may even be wildly successful beyond anybody’s expectations. —

* Ditesh Gathani is an open source expert.

Friday, April 22, 2011

malaysiakini: Nuclear lessons for Malaysia (Part 2)... by Dr Ronald S McCoy

Nuclear lessons for Malaysia (Part 2)
Ronald S McCoy
Apr 20, 2011, 11:22am
Vexing questions

Radiation is invisible and cannot be recalled. In a nuclear crisis, there will be many questions about radiation. As the Japanese people are now discovering, it is a nightmare trying to make sense of the uncertainties.
  1. How do you know when you are in danger?
  2. How long will this danger persist?
  3. How can you reduce the danger to yourself and your family?
  4. What level of exposure is safe?
  5. How do you get access to vital information in time to prevent or minimise exposure?
  6. What are the potential health risks and consequences of exposure?
  7. Whose information can you rely on or trust?
  8. How do you rebuild a healthy way of life in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster?
These questions are difficult to answer, and they become even more complicated when governments and the nuclear industry maintain tight control of information, technological operations, scientific research, and the bio-medical lessons that shape public health response.

Transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability do not sit well with an industry addicted to filtering and censoring information. It explains why there is no clear consensus on the local and global health consequences of Fukushima.

There is no safe threshold for radiation. The claim that exposure to low-level radiation does not pose a risk to health is a myth, generated by governments and the nuclear industry. During the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, scientific findings on health risks from nuclear fallout that contradicted the official narrative were censored. Scientists with integrity were discredited, punished or blacklisted.

In 1994, the US Advisory Commission on Human Radiation Experimentation concluded that the literature on radiation and health during the Cold War was heavily sanitised and scripted to reassure and pacify public protests.

Decades of official censorship have reinforced the false core message: Human beings have evolved in a world where background radiation is present and is natural, and that any adverse health effect of radiation exposure is the occasional and accidental result of high levels of exposure.

There are other sources of conclusive data that allow a very different interpretation of the health hazards posed by a nuclear disaster. These include several declassified records of US and Soviet human radiation experiments, Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission records, long-term research on Chernobyl survivors, and proceedings of the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal.

From these records, some important facts have emerged. For example, nuclear fallout and radioactive contamination of ocean and land ultimately enter the food chain and the human body, and therefore represent significant health risks.

Chronic exposure to radiation does more than increase the risk of cancers. It threatens the immune system, exacerbates pre-existing conditions, affects fertility, increases the rate of birth defects, and can retard physical and mental development.

NONEJapan's ongoing nuclear crisis demonstrates the degree to which the state prioritises security interests over the fundamental rights of people and their environment.

Japan's response to Fukushima mimics the responses of other governments to catastrophic events, such as Chernobyl and Katrina. It has been to control the content and flow of information to prevent panic and mitigate the inevitable loss of trust in the government, reduce legal liability, and protect nuclear and other industry agendas.

It is more than likely that the Malaysian government will behave in the same manner in a similar crisis. We still remember its disgraceful attempt to cover up the 1992 illegal and reprehensible dumping of radioactive thorium near Bukit Merah New Village by Mitsubishi's Asian Rare Earth company.

There are many lessons to be learnt from Fukushima, not least of which is to recognise that nuclear energy is exceedingly dangerous and carries unacceptable, unnecessary risks to human health and the environment. In Malaysia, there must be strong public demand for transparency and accountability and an end to all plans to opt for nuclear energy.

Misleading information

Nuclear energy is not cheap, clean or safe. And yet, vested interests in the government and the nuclear industry are attempting to override common sense and reason. They continue to trumpet the imaginary virtues of nuclear power and play down the enormous cost of nuclear power, the problem of nuclear waste, and the risks of an accident.

azlanNuclear reactors, like nuclear weapons, do not forgive mistakes of judgment, simple negligence, human error or mechanical failure. Malaysia's poor record of industrial safety and its bad maintenance culture underlie concerns about public safety in the event of a nuclear accident.

The nuclear industry has a history of making misleading claims about nuclear safety that have often confused and misled the uninformed. Genuine debate and critical examination have been avoided, evidence ignored, opponents silenced or marginalised, and critical issues of public health and welfare have been answered with standard bland platitudes.

Nuclear regulatory bodies have too often acted out of expediency and ignored the health and protection of the public.

Proliferation of nuclear weapons

Nuclear power is directly linked to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Member states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have the “inalienable right” to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. All civilian nuclear energy programmes provide a convenient cover, as well as the training, technology and plutonium necessary for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

That was the route taken by India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea to become nuclear weapon states. A typical 1,000 megawatt reactor produces enough plutonium each year for 40 nuclear weapons.

The government of Malaysia has consistently opposed nuclear weaponry and supports the abolition of nuclear weapons. Unless circumstances change dramatically, I feel confident that policy will not change.

Radioactive nuclear waste

Nuclear power plants produce lethal radioactive waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years and that of uranium-235 is 731 million years. We are talking about radiation forever.

No country in the world has been able to safely dispose of its nuclear waste, which is accumulating in pools or casks alongside nuclear reactors in forty-four countries, waiting for a solution. Finding satisfactory underground geologic repositories has proved to be an intractable problem.

After 20 years and US$9 billion of investment, the Obama administration has declared that the proposed repository site in Yucca Mountain is “not an option.”

When questioned about nuclear waste, the nuclear industry argues that spent nuclear fuel should be reprocessed or 'recycled' into fresh fuel. Only the French experience with reprocessing has been technically successful, but economically it has been a failure.

If medieval man had ventured into nuclear energy, we today would still be managing his waste, assuming we had survived. Nuclear waste is not a legacy we should bequeath future generations.

Cost of nuclear energy
Cheap nuclear power is a myth. “Too cheap to meter” was the false slogan in 1954. Forbes business magazine has described the failure of the US nuclear industry as “the largest managerial disaster in business history.”

After 50 years of substantial government subsidies, nuclear power remains prohibitively expensive. Even among business and financial communities, it is widely acknowledged that nuclear power would not be economically viable without government subsidies.

In the United States, the most important subsidy comes in the form of loan guarantees, which promise that taxpayers will bail out nuclear utility companies by paying back their loans if and when their projects fail.

Fukushima nuclear plant meltdownThe nuclear industry's opaque methods of accounting make it difficult to determine the full economic costs of nuclear energy. Costs are often buried in generous government subsidies or conjured into debt legacies for future generations.

Tenaga Nasional Berhad claims that it could build a 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor for RM1 billion, but there is no mention of other costs. Real costs, such as operating costs, accident insurance, maintenance of reactor security, nuclear waste management and decommissioning costs, are buried in the nuclear industry's creative, opaque methods of accounting

Capital costs remain a critical problem. Objective data on nuclear economics do not exist. Examination of the limited number of published capital cost estimates shows that the estimated capital cost of a new nuclear power plant has escalated rapidly since 2005 and that estimates are largely derived from manufacturers of reactor systems.

It follows that it is extremely risky to accept a manufacturer's estimates and to sign a contract that does not specify a fixed cost, and yet some purchasers do exactly that.

The only relatively reliable data on the costs of nuclear power come from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Finland. Within this limited data base, we know that cost overruns and construction delays are customary and that no nuclear power plant has been built within budget or a contractual time-frame.

As recent as May 29, 2009, two financial reports in the business section of the New York Times exposed the risky economics of nuclear power by highlighting two fiascos: the virtual collapse of Canada's global flagship, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and the problems facing the French company, Areva, over the construction of a new third generation pressurised water reactor in Olkiluoto, which is four years behind schedule and more than US$2 billion over budget.

Both companies were overtaken by cost overruns, amounting to billions of dollars, and long delays in completion schedules extending into decades.

A recent study in the United States, which focussed on business risks and the cost of building new nuclear power plants, identified several significant risks. The cost of capital for building new nuclear power plants has been rising much faster than inflation.

NONEMajor construction delays result in cost overruns of billions of dollars. Long lead times for construction also result in a “premium risk” which increases the cost of capital. In the end, to keep afloat, new nuclear plants will have to impose high electricity rates which will make consumers very unhappy and the economy less competitive.

After more than 50 years in the business, the nuclear industry cannot attract private funding or liability insurance, cannot demonstrate an ability to build new reactors within a contractual time-frame and budget, and cannot deal with its radioactive waste.

Instead of investing billions in nuclear power, it would be far wiser and more justifiable to commit Malaysia's limited resources to research and development of renewable sources of energy, energy conservation and energy efficiency.


The Malaysian government has approached the crucially important issue of nuclear energy in its customary authoritarian manner and its embrace of the private business sector. It smacks of a domineering, arrogant, undemocratic, corrupt government that has been in power for too long.

There has been no attempt to engage the people of this country in a balanced, rational, informed dialogue on a form of energy that is dirty, dangerous and expensive.

Contrary to what the government may believe, going to the polls periodically is not democracy, when freedom of speech and freedom of the press are constrained and people are intimidated by arbitrary laws, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Internal Security Act, and by the large number of custodial deaths.

In the same way, funding of vested commercial and political interests in the local nuclear industry to disseminate misinformation about nuclear energy to captive audiences cannot be equated with public education about one of the most dangerous forms of energy. Everything is being done to persuade the public that nuclear energy is good for the economy, the climate and the country.

Malaysians must wake up, cast aside apathy, stand up and insist on their democratic right to have an honest, comprehensive national debate and a national referendum on nuclear energy, with independent oversight.

I call on the people of Malaysia to form a people's coalition to mount a national campaign against the introduction of nuclear energy.

Yesterday: Nuclear lessons for Malaysia (Part 1)

DR RONALD S McCOY is the founding president of Physicians for Peace and Social Responsibility and the co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

TMI: Get rid of market anomalies and monopolies, say economists... By Lee Wei Lian

Get rid of market anomalies and monopolies, say economists

April 19, 2011

Economists say the country’s dependence on foreign workers has hurt local wages. — Reuters file pic

KUALA LUMPUR, April 19 — Malaysia’s poor purchasing power could be boosted by reforming its markets to be more competitive and free of entrenched monopolies and market distortions, say economists.

This comes as Malaysians grow increasingly doubtful over official inflation figures and critical of the prices that they have to pay in relation to their income.

The 2010 Prices and Wages report by Swiss bank UBS AG show that residents in KL have only 33.8 per cent the purchasing power of their counterparts in New York, 42 per cent that of London, 33.7 per cent that of Sydney, 32.6 per cent that of Los Angeles and 31.6 per cent that of Zurich.

Maybank Investment Bank chief economist Suhaimi Ilias said a lack of competition in Malaysia has resulted in less pressure on prices.

“There is still a lot of inefficiency in our economy,” he said.

RAM chief economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng said the Malaysian market needs more healthy competition and less monopolistic tendencies.

“We find that Malaysian industries are highly concentrated with just a few players,” he said. “Prices are in a way inelastic and not responsive to income levels.”

Both were in agreement market distortions, which have become a prominent feature of the Malaysian economy, need to be addressed for both prices and wages to be more aligned.

One of the most heavily distorted sectors, said Yeah, is the auto industry, where Malaysians have to bear some of the highest car prices in the world, resulting in 20 per cent of the RM581 billion total household debt in the country now being held in cars, an asset that depreciates over time.

Suhaimi said the prices that Malaysians are currently paying for cars do not seem to make sense.

“I can’t understand why a motorcycle should have to cost RM6,000-7,000 and a car like the Perodua Viva should cost over RM30,000,” he said.

Yeah said there is a need to change the national automotive policy and reduce tariff barriers as it would be good for both the economy and the car industry.

“This way we can attract more players and reshape the auto industry to be regional,” he said.

Suhaimi also expressed concern that prices for some goods are being artificially suppressed and price shocks could result when the subsidies are rolled back.

“For heavily subsidised industries, competition is the answer,” he said.

He also said the country’s dependence on foreign workers had hurt local wages.

Yeah concurred and said the government should not allow wages to be artificially suppressed.

“There should not be an influx of cheap foreign labour,” he said.

He added the undervalued ringgit, which has been used in the past to make Malaysian exports artificially competitive, is another distortion which hurts purchasing power when it comes to imported goods.

The Malaysian government is planning to enforce the anti-profiteering act this year and the competition act next year which aims to prevent anti-competitive behaviour.

In the case of the latter, however, there will be allowances made for companies to apply for exemptions.
Industry observers also told local business publication The Edge Financial Daily, that it will be challenging for the Competition Commission, which will be established under the Competition Act, to take action, noting that many industries in Malaysia are dominated by big players where monopolistic or oligopolistic structures exist.

This was attributed to the government’s heavy involvement in businesses, through the privatisation of state services, awarding of licences and the presence of government-linked companies in many facets of the economy.

The government could also be loath to give up lucrative income derived from sources such as tariff barriers for imported cars.

But Dr Foong Kee Kuan, senior research fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER), reaffirmed more competition is needed to boost purchasing power.

“The government has to push it and make our industries more competitive,” he said.

malaysiakini: The myths of Sarawak poll results.... by Bridget Welsh

The myths of S'wak poll results
Bridget Welsh
Apr 19, 2011
COMMENT The dust has begun to settle on the 10th Sarawak polls with the BN touting its retention of the two-thirds majority as a victory, while Pakatan Rakyat points to the more than doubling of its seats. This was the most competitive state election in Sarawak's history and was hard fought by both sides.

BN, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak essentially camped in the state for 10 days to assure the two-thirds, while the opposition also focused is national machinery in Sarawak, bringing in the top guns from Peninsular Malaysia and thousands of party workers.

A closer look at the results show that the opposition has made impressive ground, despite its failure to break the two-thirds threshold. Sarawak is no longer BN's fixed deposit, and trends in mobilisation and support suggest that it is even more likely not to be so unless Sarawak BN radically changes how it governs.

Political awakening

The spin on this election reflects a similar tone of 2006, focusing on the gains in urban seats and Chinese voters. The implicit threat in Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud's statement that the Chinese will pay for their lack of loyalty highlights the perception that the losses are the product of continued Chinese support for the opposition.

In terms of sheer number of voters for the opposition, this is correct. In all the Chinese-majority seats - from Padungan to Bukit Assek - the level of support for the opposition increased, both in number of votes and share of the vote.

This reflected the dynamic - almost electrifying - opposition campaign in the urban areas, especially in Miri where voters experienced the political awakening that their counterparts in Kuching had experienced in 2006, and in Sibu at the 2010 by-election.

No question about it, a growing number of Chinese supported the opposition in Sarawak. The interesting finding from the results, however, is that they are not alone, and in fact the Chinese swing toward the opposition is comparatively less (yes, less) than the changes within other communities.

By comparing the 2011 results with those of 2006, I trace the changes in voter turnout and share of support (percentage of majority among voters who turned out to vote) for the opposition at the seat level and, when appropriate and with available data, the polling stream level.

The preliminary findings highlight that the movement is greatest in mixed constituencies, and significant movement occurred across the ethnic communities, even the Malays.

Let's begin with the mobilisation of voters across ethnicities. The 2011 polls show an impressive increase in voter turnout, in keeping with the increased competitiveness of the election. The greatest turnout increase was among the Malays, where the PBB machinery was well-honed, as more voters were brought to the polls, followed by increased participation of Chinese and Iban voters.

What this impressive increase in mobilisation across groups reveals is that Sarawakians recognised their power as voters and came out to vote in an unprecedented manner. This highlights the growing appreciation of political power in Sarawak and engagement with politics, which is in keeping with the unprecedented crowds at ceramah across the state, even in the rural areas.

azlanThe table (left) also highlights that the change in voting across the ethnic communities. The greatest movement compared to 2006 was in mixed seats, followed by movement in the Orang Ulu community in places such as Ba'Kelalan (where Baru Bian won his seat) but also places such as Telang Usan.

The share of movement in Orang Ulu-majority seats is large, a 20% swing. These numbers can be a bit deceiving in that the actual numbers of voters in Sarawak are small and 20% can reflect a small number of voters in the small constituencies, yet nevertheless, the swing is significant.

Ibans and Bidayuhs too change loyalities

Why then, given the swing, did the seats not move into opposition hands? The reason is simple - before 2011 opposition support in some of these areas was minuscule. In many constituencies, the opposition needed more than a 40% change to win. Yet there has been a very large swing, which is much larger than the swing in Peninsular Malaysia in 2008.

From my perspective, the most interesting ethnic changes occurred in the Malay/Melanau, Iban and Bidayuh areas. A look at the seat tally suggests that Malays are squarely in the BN camp. The PBB won all 35 of its seats and PAS failed to win a single seat, even in the close contest of Beting Maro.

The Malay/Melanau seats are interesting in a number of ways. First, the pattern towards the opposition varies, with a few of the seats moving even more strongly toward the BN, such as Sadong Jaya, and as such, the pattern is uneven.

Yet the Malay/Melanau ground was more competitive with more straight fights and more contests, such as in Daro and Dalat. PAS, in particular, made inroads. To suggest that the Malay/Melanau community is firmly behind the BN is wrong. Their support is changing as well, in spite of the ethnic campaigning and use of the racial card.

The Iban and Bidayuh majority seats also followed the pattern of opposition gains. In Iban areas, there was less movement in the share of the vote and like the Malay/Melanau seats the pattern was not consistent across seats toward the opposition, with some increased support towards the BN in Engkilili, but overall, the Iban have also changed loyalties.
azlanAs is shown in this table (right), this occurred most starkly in semi-rural areas.

The Bidayuh seats were seen to be those that would have determined whether the opposition broke the two-thirds or not. Pakatan hoped to pick up at least three of these Bidayuh seats, as sentiment on the ground toward the BN had shifted due to the religious issues and persistent exclusion of this group from economic benefits.

Higher education among the Bidayuh had increased awareness and exposure to political issues. The opposition failed to win a single seat, but here too the gains in the share of majority were impressive - an estimated 17.9% swing.

The bottom line is that the view that this election was the product of a bifurcated pattern of support - Chinese with the opposition and other groups with the BN - is wrong. Every group expressed serious concerns with the BN, and this was driven primarily with angst toward the long tenure and perceived excesses of the chief minister.

The urban voters myth

It is thus not surprising that given the changes across the board across ethnic communities, another myth needs to be shattered, namely that the opposition support is only in the urban areas.

Much has been made that the opposition won two very rural seats, Ba'kelalan and Krian. Yet, the most significant gains in terms of seats were in the semi-rural areas - for example, Batu Kawah, Dudong, Piasau (which has a large semi-rural area). The close fight in Senadin is also illustrative.

My preliminary analysis at the seat level shows that the gains in semi-rural seats were more than in the other areas, 19.7% compared to 14.8% in the rural areas and 13.4% in the urban communities.

The 'safe' seats in the urban periphery are no longer 'safe'. The change in voting pattern reflected not just Chinese support for Pakatan, but Iban and Bidayuh support as well. In fact, what is especially interesting is that the movement in support in rural areas is more than the share in urban areas (although it is important to note that the urban areas have more voters).

More than anything, these findings point illustrate how much the 'fixed deposit' is no longer secure. Semi-rural and rural cracks in BN support are part of the new Sarawak, a more competitive polity that has become increasingly receptive to a stronger two-party system and critical of BN governance, especially in the areas of corruption.

The growing youth revolution

The election of young candidates in the opposition in some cases fresh out to university may come as a surprise to some, but it highlights the final important dynamic in this election, the massive movement among young voters away from the BN.

Chong Snr ceramah in kuchingDrawing from the study of 'saluran' results in seven seats so far, from the Miri, Kuching and Bidayuh areas (semi-rural and urban seats), the findings suggest that a youth revolt has occurred.

In the lower polling streams, where new voters are concentrated, more than 70% of voters opposed the BN. Given the largely young crowds at rallies, especially in Kuching and Miri, this is no surprise.

We see two pattern - higher mobilisation of younger voters, an estimated 16% increase in turnout compared to older voters, and an overwhelming level of support for Pakatan among younger voters in the lower streams, with a change in trend of over 25%. In 2006, there was already stronger support for the opposition among the youth, but this appears to have significantly increased.

azlanWhen one considers the high number of younger voters that did not register, estimated in the 100,000s in Sarawak, and the large number of younger voters working outstation, these results should be quite worrying for the BN indeed. The fact that the election came before Gawai (harvest festival) is also important as it is likely that when younger voters returned home possibly further movement from the BN could have occurred.

Many a younger voter in my exit interviews highlighted the fact that they convinced their parents (and grandparents) to change support. The youthful composition of voting this election compared to 2006 shows that indeed a revolution among younger voters has occurred in Sarawak.
Rise of a new Sarawak
These results are preliminary and need to further confirmed with the official results at the 'saluran' (polling stream) level. This analysis is drawn from the newspaper publication of results and 'saluran' results that have been made available immediately after the polls, so the numbers should be seen as indicators of trends rather than absolutes.

These findings collectively show that there is indeed a new Sarawak, that voters across races, across geographic areas and especially the state's future are no longer supporting the BN to the same degree. While the two-thirds may not have been broken, profound political change did come to Sarawak.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition can continue to momentum or the BN will address the root causes of the discontent, but irrespective of this, Sarawak remains critical for the political direction of the country - now more than ever.

Malaysiakini: Nuclear lessons for Malaysia - Part 1.... by Dr Ronald S McCoy

Nuclear lessons for Malaysia - Part 1
Dr Ronald S McCoy
Apr 19, 2011, 11:37am

Since March 11, Japan has been reeling from an unprecedented natural disaster of awesome proportions, followed by a man-made nuclear crisis. First, a record-breaking earthquake, 8.9 on the Richter scale, off the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Honshu. Then, a towering 10-metre tsunami which killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed almost everything in its path.

Finally, the release of radioactivity into the environment from a nuclear power plant, damaged by overheating and explosions.

NONEThe earthquake had automatically shut down the six nuclear reactors of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). But it also knocked out the power grid, forcing operators to fall back on diesel generators to keep coolant flowing into hot reactor cores of radioactive uranium and plutonium fuel rods.

Then the tsunami swept in, knocked out the generators and cut off power to the plant's cooling systems. All at once, four out of its six nuclear reactors were in dire trouble from overheating. Explosions then damaged fuel rods and the integrity of the primary containment structure, and radioactivity was released into the environment.

There are few environmental dangers more lasting or more fearsome than radiation from a nuclear accident. We saw this in the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, and now in Fukushima. The truth of Murphy's Law is inescapable: “If something can go wrong, sooner or later it will go wrong.”

Public health

The public health implications of nuclear power should not be subordinate to the economic considerations of the nuclear industry and government energy policies. There is a need to review the scientific evidence for public health impacts of nuclear power, to assess occupational hazards faced by nuclear industry workers, and to assess evidence that challenges the legitimacy of the underlying assumptions of nuclear safety.

A common thread running through these health concerns is the risk posed by ionising radiation. There is no safe threshold. Over the past 50 years, the claims of the nuclear industry, that nuclear power is both safe and vital for our future, have proven false and contentious.

NONEIonising radiation can damage DNA, causing cancer and inherited mutations. However, whether an individual develops cancer following exposure to ionising radiation depends on whether the DNA is damaged, what part of the DNA is damaged, whether the cell line can reproduce, whether the damage is completely repaired, and whether the cell completes transformations that lead to malignancy.
The most important evidence regarding risks from exposure to radiation comes from epidemiologic studies that examine incidence of cancer in exposed populations, such as children exposed to radiation in utero, people exposed to background radiation, nuclear plant workers, patients exposed to diagnostic or therapeutic radiation, and people exposed to radiation from nuclear explosions.

The risk of mutation-related damage, including cancer, is proportional to the radiation dose. There is no threshold below which ionising radiation produces no damage. This means that background radiation from any source causes cancer and genetic mutations among exposed populations.

What happens in a nuclear accident

When a reactor is operating, fuel rods containing uranium and plutonium pellets produce heat through nuclear fission and get very hot. The fuel is immersed in water and the heat produces steam, which is used to drive a turbine to produce electricity.

The water also serves to keep the fuel from overheating and is continuously circulated to carry away excess heat. Even if the reactor shuts down, the fuel will remain hot for a long time and so must still be cooled.

Fukushima nuclear plant meltdownIf the pumps that circulate the cooling water are not operating, the water will heat up and evaporate, and the fuel can be exposed to the environment. At this point, the zirconium cladding on the fuel rods will start to heat up, blister, and then rupture.

If the fuel is not covered by water and is exposed for a few hours, it will start to melt. The molten fuel will collect at the bottom of the steel reactor vessel, and it will be a matter of hours before the fuel melts through the steel and settles on the concrete floor of the primary containment vessel.

In an accident, the amount of radioactivity released into the environment will depend on the integrity of the primary and secondary containments. The radioactive isotopes of greatest concern in a nuclear accident are iodine-131 and caesium-137.

Uncertain geological knowledge

Nuclear power requires stability - political stability and geological stability. Countries considering the option of nuclear power need to soberly assess their plans, particularly if they are located in active volcanic regions.

But geological knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. And we rely on such knowledge too heavily when making policy decisions about locating hazardous technologies.

Designed and built to withstand what is termed “design basis accidents,” nuclear power plants are usually sited in geologically stable and physically secure environments, determined by geologists. The possibility of a “design basis accident” is based on “credible events,” which are determined by an analysis of probabilities.

The Fukushima disaster was a “beyond design basis accident” because the analysis was wrong. It was calculated that the probable “credible event” expected to occur in Fukushima would be an earthquake no greater than a magnitude of 7.9 and a tsunami no higher than 6.7 metres.

NONEIt was not in the analysis of probabilities that Fukushima would be struck by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake or a 10-metre high tsunami. But geologists and the nuclear industry, like all human beings, sometimes get it wrong.

It is noteworthy that there are a number of unknown geological faults and processes which make it more difficult to accurately predict a “credible event.” In other words, it is very much an intelligent guessing game, but guessing it is nevertheless.

Incidentally, the recent earthquake in Christchurch occurred on an unknown and unexposed geological fault, and was therefore unpredictable. In fact, damaging earthquakes have been known to originate from unknown faults.

Malaysia has so far not been traumatised by a severe earthquake or tsunami, although located on the western margins of the Pacific Rim of Fire and close to earthquake-prone Indonesia and the Philippines. But with such incomplete and imperfect geological knowledge, we cannot rule out the possibility of a damaging earthquake in the future.

Human error

But earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only causes of a nuclear accident. Human error alone can lead to a nuclear accident. It happened in Windscale (later renamed Sellafield), Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. So, it could happen in Malaysia. Building two nuclear reactors in error-inclined Malaysia would carry the potential for an incalculable catastrophe. The chances of a nuclear accident in Malaysia are not negligible.

I have heard the facetious argument that plane crashes are not sufficient reason to abandon air travel. But the scale of a nuclear accident is incomparable. Radiation could kill and injure thousands, cause cancers, and contaminate and render uninhabitable a large part of Malaysia.

Nightmare at Fukushima

Japan, the only country to have experienced nuclear warfare, now faces another nuclear nightmare. Months may pass before we can fully understand what went wrong and learn from Fukushima. It is a high price to pay for using potentially dangerous and replaceable technology. It has rekindled fading memories of Chernobyl and shifted the balance in the debate on climate change and the risks and benefits of nuclear energy.

It is forcing many countries to review the safety of their nuclear facilities and their energy policies. Germany has responded to strong public anti-nuclear sentiment by reinstating and accelerating its nuclear phase-out policy, and temporarily shutting down the oldest seven of its 17 reactors.

Both India and China, with their expanding economies and energy needs, are reviewing nuclear safety measures, but have not shelved plans to build more reactors in the next ten years.

A number of studies conclude that nuclear power cannot meet energy needs; that it is excessively expensive; that it is not carbon neutral; that it creates additional environmental and security risks. Most importantly, new evidence indicates that environmentally safe and sustainable energy technologies can be developed to meet growing energy needs.

There is a growing conviction worldwide that nuclear power should be phased out and a serious commitment made to invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation.

Malaysia's nuclear energy plans

Apparently, the Malaysian government is continuing its plans to build two 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactors, in spite of a 40 percent energy reserve.

In responding to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister covered his back politically when he said that the decision to build the reactors will only be made after his colleagues in cabinet have evaluated a paper to be submitted by the new Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation, a creature of the Economic Transformation Programme.

Serious questions are in order:
  • Does the green minister believe that nuclear energy is green
  • Does the government realise that nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous and expensive?
  • What is the urgency in embarking on a nuclear energy project when Malaysia enjoys a 40 percent energy reserve and does not need to rush into nuclear power?
  • Has the government really considered the realities of nuclear power economics?
  • azlanHow much of taxpayers' money will be required as subsidies to make nuclear power economically feasible?
  • Is it wise to invest billions in expensive nuclear energy when investments should be made in alternative renewable energy and energy efficient technologies?
  • Is it not time for the government to join with other governments in a holistic approach to climate change by implementing ecologically sustainable economic development?
  • Has the government considered the health, environmental and human security dangers of a reactor meltdown or a terrorist attack on nuclear facilities?
  • Will it be possible in the long term to prevent diversion of nuclear materials to nuclear weapons proliferation or to a terrorist group?
  • Where and how does the government plan to dispose of nuclear waste, that will remain radioactive for thousands of years, when the nuclear industry and advanced countries have not found a solution?
  • Does the government not think that such a crucial issue as nuclear energy deserves a national debate and a referendum?
  • Does the government really think that it can make a unilateral decision and then justify it by claiming that it has studied and accepted a report from the very company that will benefit from it?
  • Does the government realise that the billions of ringgit invested in nuclear energy will divert scarce resources away from the imperative of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies?
  • Is the government beginning to believe its own propaganda and misinformation about nuclear energy?
Public distrust

The nuclear industry has carried the stamp of secrecy like a birthmark. From its very beginning, the nuclear industry has had a long history of cover-ups and downright deception, with the occasional lapse into silence - the silence of guilt. Public trust in the promoters of nuclear power is almost non-existent.

In Britain, America, Germany, Russia, Japan and other countries, people have not been told the truth about the real economic cost of nuclear energy and the health and environmental consequences of nuclear mishaps and near-misses.

The stricken Japanese population is well aware of the culture of nuclear cover-ups. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) owns and operates the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant.

In 2002, Tepco's chairman and senior executives had to resign when the Japanese government discovered that they had covered up the existence of structural damage to reactors. In 2006, Tepco admitted that it had been falsifying data about reactor coolant materials.

Nuclear lessons for Malaysia - Part 2

DR RONALD S McCOY is the founding president of Physicians for Peace and Social Responsibility and the co-president of International Physicians for the Preventive of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

TMI: Malaysians plagued by poor purchasing power... By Lee Wei Lian, Yow Hong Chieh and Melissa Chi

Malaysians plagued by poor purchasing power

TMI: UPDATED @ 11:14:31 AM 19-04-2011
By Lee Wei Lian, Yow Hong Chieh and Melissa Chi, April 19, 2011

Analysts say the undervalued ringgit distorts the country’s purchasing power for imported goods. — Reuters file pic
KUALA LUMPUR, April 19 — Malaysians who find themselves affording less than their contemporaries overseas have distorted and inefficient markets, lack of competition, low wages and a weak ringgit to thank for their poor purchasing power, which in the case of KL, is only 34 per cent that of New York.
Despite government assurances stating that inflation is under control, Malaysians are becoming increasingly restive over the cost of goods in relation to wages, especially those who are able to compare the corresponding price-to-wage ratios in developed economies.

Malaysians who have experienced working and living abroad often experience sticker shock when they come back and see prices in KL.

“Oh my God, a Tiramisu is RM15!” said Calvin Lee, a Malaysian who has lived in Sydney, Singapore and now London, referring to what cafes in KL are charging for a slice of cake as compared to about GBP5 (RM25) in London.

Aidi Zalman, a consultant who studied in the UK, told The Malaysian Insider that salaries in London could go much further than KL.

He had worked part-time as a waiter in London and noted that a single day’s wages of about GBP50-60 was already enough for him to buy a pair of branded shoes and even a low-end iPod, a concept unthinkable for local waiters.

“GBP100 can feed two apartments of students for a week,” he said. “Here you can spend RM100 and get hardly anything.”

“I hate it when politicians make stupid statements like Malaysia is cheap,” said Edward Seah, an engineer who has previously worked in Singapore and the US. “Prices might seem cheap when you convert it to US dollars yes, but then we should also convert our salaries to US dollars.”

Victor Wong, a Malaysian expat in Sydney, said that Australians get more mileage out of their money.
He gave the example of clothes where he said he can get a good quality shirt for about AUD100 but would need to spend about RM200 to get similar quality in KL.

Wong pointed out that even Asian food could be more affordable for those living in Sydney than KL.

“You pay RM15 for a bowl of soup noodles in KL shopping centres but only AUD10 in Sydney shopping centres,” he said.

The 2010 Prices and Wages report by Swiss bank UBS AG show that residents in KL have only 33.8 per cent the purchasing power of their counterparts in New York, 42 per cent that of London, 33.7 per cent that of Sydney, 32.6 per cent that of Los Angeles and 31.6 per cent that of Zurich.

The same study showed that on average, KL residents have to work 22 minutes to afford a loaf of bread as compared with 18 minutes in Los Angeles, 16 minutes in Sydney, 15 minutes in Tokyo and 12 minutes in Zurich.

The figures grow much worse for imported items. To buy an iPod Nano, a KL worker would have to labour a whopping 52 hours as compared with just 9.5 hours in Los Angeles and Sydney, 12 hours in Tokyo and nine hours in Zurich.

A check on salaries and prices in selected developed country cities by The Malaysian Insider showed that despite being touted as one of the world’s least expensive cities, KL residents pay as much or even more for chicken, broadband, cars and mobile phones as a percentage of their income.

Communications, for example, is one area where Malaysians are paying notably more than residents in developed countries even after currency conversion.

A 5Mbps broadband package costs RM149 in KL while in London, a 10Mbps package would cost GBP13.50, in Melbourne a 5-8Mbps package costs AUD40 and in New York, a 7Mbps service costs USD41.95.

Those who want to buy an iPhone 4 in KL, meanwhile, would have to pay RM1990 with a basic 24-month contract while in London, residents can get an iPhone 4 for just GBP199 with a basic 24-month contract and in Singapore, it costs just SGD210 with a basic contract.

Maybank Investment Bank chief economist Suhaimi Ilias said that what is important is local perception and not official inflation figures which claimed that the inflation rate in Malaysia was only 1.7 per cent last year.

“I think on the ground, not many people feel we are cheap,” said Suhaimi. “They feel that the cost of living is high regardless of what the inflation figures are.”

He added that inefficiency and lack of competition are contributing to the higher prices in Malaysia.

“I can’t understand why a motorcycle should have to cost RM6,000-7,000 and a car like the Perodua Viva should cost over RM30,000,” he said.

RAM Holdings chief economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng said that cars are one of the sectors where the Malaysian market suffers the heaviest distortion.

A Honda Civic in KL costs about RM115,000, or 20 times the average monthly salary of an auditor.

In Melbourne and London by comparison, a Honda Civic costs AUD25,000 and GBP19,000 respectively, or only about three times the average salary of an auditor in those cities.

The high cost of cars is part of the reason that Malaysians have leveraged themselves to a record 76 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Bank Negara statistics show that at the end of last year, 20 per cent of Malaysian household debt was due to cars, an asset which depreciates over time.

Yeah also said that the ringgit is undervalued and distorts the country’s purchasing power for imported goods.

“We need to ensure prices are right and that there are no market distortions, no subsidies and allow market prices,” he said.

But even if the ringgit is allowed to rise, there is no guarantee that savings would be passed on to consumers. The ringgit is now hovering at RM3.02 to the US dollar but Goldman Sachs predicated yesterday the currency could hit RM2.98 to the US dollar in the next three months.

When The Malaysian Insider contacted the director of wholesale and retail at government think tank Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu), Ravidran Devagunam about the higher prices Malaysians pay for branded goods, he acknowledged that some retailers will maximise profits on luxury items not readily available in Malaysia but said that the government is “unable” to compel them to discount their prices even after the abolishment of import duties as luxury goods and apparel are not controlled items.

“However, we believe that market forces and consumer education will eventually force a price reduction of these goods over time,” he said.

The Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations Secretary General Mohd Shaani Abdullah said people should question the prices that they are currently paying.

“Consumer protection will only come about when people make noise,” he told The Malaysian Insider when contacted. “Only then will politicians act.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Aliran: Corruption, cost of living, and the need for good governance — by John Inbaraj

Corruption, cost of living, and the need for good governance — John Inbaraj

Aliran, April 10, 2011
APRIL 10 — The Star reported, “[a] Customs director had millions of ringgit spread over several bank accounts. Another had almost 1 million. Two others had between 500,000 and 850,000 ringgit.” Not only that, gold bars, bags of cash, luxury watches and posh cars were among the goods involved in raids that resulted in 62 officers arrested for under declaration of duties and tax evasion (April 3, 2011, “Ill-gotten stash”).

To be more specific, about RM10 billion has been smuggled out or remitted overseas. Customs officers had also admitted to collecting RM100-500 for every declaration form (K1) submitted and approved (an act that s been openly going on for decades).

And RM108 billion has been estimated lost annually in unpaid duties and income tax. One officer had gold bars in his house while another had RM600,000 cash in several bags in his house.

Do we congratulate the MACC for some great work or do we condemn the government and the MACC for their continuous inefficiency to tackle corruption to such a drastic extent?

Recently, Idris Jala, the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, reiterated that excessive government subsidies had threatened to make the country bankrupt by 2019! These subsidies are small amounts compared to the billions lost in corrupt practices.

It is impossible to understand how the Prime Minister’s Department in particular and the government in general can tolerate such brazen corruption. It is even more difficult to understand why there are people still voting for the same government.

The standard of living among Malaysians has reportedly gone up. But the reality is that the cost of living has also gone up tremendously. A green apple costs over RM1 and a kilo of infant formula milk is in the region of RM25.

The government rates hardcore poverty level income for at RM440 per month for a household. These figures tell us that people are still living under “poverty” conditions due to the high inflation rate in relation to their monthly income.

Is this reality a reflection of lack of enforcement in government or has corruption become institutionalised in the government?

Do you remember the day when Dr Mahathir Mohamad blasted the then Auditor-General Ahmad Noordin for highlighting Bank Negara’s dabbling in the global foreign exchange market, which eventually resulted in RM10 billion in losses?

Dr Mahathir delivered a body blow to the credibility of the auditor general and his report. Such an act highlighted serious shortcoming in our government system, especially in tackling corruption. What has become of the respect for the auditor general and his annual report remains unanswered. Has anyone been charged for overpaid screwdrivers and car jacks?

Another incident in the recent past involved the supply of goods and services to the army and police departments. The suppliers were charged for delivering sub-standard goods and services. Under normal practices, quotations are requested from suppliers and samples are reviewed before an order is placed.

The goods are checked by the receiving departments — in this case, the police and the army — for conformance of quality and quantity before an acknowledgement of receipt is issued. Why was the charge targeted at the suppliers and not the police and army departments? Were there any insiders nabbed and charged?

There are many unresolved issues in the conduct of particular agencies in this matter. Such blatant condoning of wrongdoings has encouraged corrupt practices across the length and breadth of this country.

Enforcement has lost its place in the fight against corruption. The RM108 billion losses alone bear testimony to this. This figure represents only a fraction of losses in the Customs Department. What colossal figures are we talking about if we include other relevant authorities and numerous other agencies and commissions?

The inefficiency in governance also takes place at a micro level. On roads, the demerit system is in shambles. Summonses are issued with no proper tracking of settlement. Accidents are aplenty but all is blamed on the drivers’ attitudes. But when a traffic offence is met with quick police action, would it not deter offenders?

In fact the reverse is true. When someone who follows the law ends up becoming the victim in time and time again, would it not frustrate that individual and force him or her to breaking road regulations? Queue-jumpers do so without a care and by the thousands. Authorities keep shouting. Why not just catch them?

The rich get richer while the poor struggle to make ends meet. Housing prices have gone haywire. Many who were born and lived in landed properties have moved to high-rise properties that have no proper laws or enforcement. Criminal acts and gangsterism have soared; this is especially evident among the younger generation due to the work schedule of their parents’ 12-hour days to feed their families.

Imagine what the RM108 billion (plus the yet undetected billions) can do to help alleviate the suffering of the poor.

To the prime minister of acronyms, I urge you to forget all of them (GTP, ETP etc, etc). I propose WOC (Wipe Out Corruption) and ELC (Enforce the Laws of the Country). —



The checklist which the regime uses to identify citizens as ‘Malays’ is arbitrary so that not only have the Iskandar Kuttys who came to Malaysia from Kerala, India on board the steamer Mamak Tongkang been transformed into Malays but also the recently arrived immigrants from Indonesia who form the vast majority of citizens classified as ‘Malays.’

The situation has become more confused when Bangladeshis and pure ethnic Chinese ( i.e. those who have found it gainful to convert to Islam) were admitted to the ‘Malay’ fold. All of them enjoy the Bumiputra status (i.e. native son/daughter) which entitles them to range of exclusive privileges denied to the Non ‘Malay’ citizens.

Jurists, historians and anthropologists have said that the term ‘Malay’ as used by the regime has no precise meaning…. Philosopher S Radhakrishnan commenting on J B Watson’s (1878 – 1958) Behaviourism which, by the way G B Shaw called a soulless stupidity said that we can make a god out of glands, if only we set about it. Employing the methods used by the regime I could easily transform a musang (Asian palm civet) or a cockroach into a Malay.

If you think my claim is fantastic, then please note that Federal Minister Nazri announced in Parliament recently that 60,000 illegal Muslim immigrants from Thailand were given citizenship papers and converted into Bumiputras. The fellow exhorted us non Muslims to sympathize with the Government for having had to make the difficult decision it made!.

I have already written about Project M a sinister scheme which was devised to render the native peoples of Sabah a minority in their own land. In peninsular Malaysia the Government carried out a campaign to register people who because of some technicality did not or could not apply for citizenship.

It was ostensibly done mainly for the benefit of poor Indians but there are among us hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Indonesia without valid papers. These will surely benefit from the exercise and what is more the vote bank of the regime would be considerably increased. Incidentally comparatively few Indians were registered.

The newly arrived immigrants from Indonesia who are called Malays — a word derived from the Tamil malai uur (hill country) — dominate the Armed Forces, Police, the Civil Service and Government Linked Companies. They are also overwhelmingly represented in the public universities.

The regime has created many affirmative action schemes exclusively for them with taxes collected mainly from non Malay citizens. It is claimed that their numbers justify such disbursement of funds. But massive corruption and mismanagement at every level of the public sector is so prevalent that ordinary non Malay citizens have not hesitated to call these guzzlers of tax money crooks and robbers.

Meanwhile we non Malays find it extremely difficult to keep pace with inflation. The overwhelmingly Malay dominated public service will not let us build places of worship without imposing all kinds of unreasonable conditions and restrictions. Likewise even publications meant for our own use attract humiliating restrictions.

Our bright children cannot obtain scholarships. In an astute move the regime announced last year that the Public Service Department would be limiting scholarships across the board. What it did not say was that ‘Malay’ students could still get scholarships from Government Linked Companies and quangos all of which were set up with taxes paid mainly by non Malay citizens.

Some decades ago Mr Lee Kuan Yew observing the abject servility of the MCA leadership called them political serfs. Today the phrase seems applicable to about 98 % of the non Malays. The regime denies us basic religious freedoms, positions in the Armed Forces and Police, our children scholarships and places in the public universities etc etc and yet all we can do is whine like a drugged rabbit.

We must boldly demand our rights and if the regime will grant them we can appeal to the International Court of Justice. The ICJ will be able to tell us if there is any justification for classifying citizens as ‘Malays’ and granting them numerous exclusive rights and privileges...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

TMI: Releasing sex video is haram, say Muslim scholars.... By Shannon Teoh

Releasing sex video is haram, say Muslim scholars

April 05, 2011
KUALA LUMPUR, April 5 — Muslim scholars have condemned the distribution of the alleged Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim sex video as haram, against Malay culture and “illegal and unethical anywhere around the world.”
The Malaysian Ulama Association (PUM) also said that those calling for the 21-minute video to be screened in Parliament are “suffering from a cancer of rubbish politics that is rotten.”

“This trend of trying to degrade and spread slander is not the norm for Malay Muslim culture. Moreover, it is illegal and unethical anywhere around the world. Recording, possessing and distributing the video is clearly haram in Islam,” said its secretary general Mohd Roslan Md Nor in a statement today.

Calls for the mysterious “Datuk T” trio to be arrested have grown louder, especially from Anwar’s PKR, since the 21-minute video emerged two weeks ago.

A 107-second snippet surfaced on the Internet on Sunday, just two days after police said the video was not doctored.

It made public part of the video that was only screened to select individuals and reporters prior to this but the clip has since been taken down from YouTube for violating its policy on nudity and sexual content.

Datuk Shazryl Eskay Abdullah, one of the Datuk T men, said yesterday that he did not know where the snippet came from and that the only copy of the video was with the police.

However, Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar denied today that the clip came from the police.

PKR has claimed that the clip proved the man in the video was not their de facto leader and repeated their demand that the trio be arrested for pornography.

Former Malacca chief minister Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik, businessman Shazryl and Perkasa treasurer-general Datuk Shuib Lazim have claimed responsibility for the video, saying they screened the video to show “a man who wants to be prime minister is not qualified.”

Opposition Leader Anwar has denied he is the man in the video and accused Umno of a politically-motivated “scurrilous attack” on him.

The involvement of former Umno Youth chief Abdul Rahim has lent credence to the claim as Umno sought to distance itself from the video.

Mohd Raslan also lashed out at those calling for the video to be screened in Dewan Rakyat as it insulted the august house.

“Dewan Rakyat, which is supposed to be a forum for debating motions and national issues, is now being turned into a pornography theatre. Those using the immunity of MPs as an excuse to watch the sex video are suffering from a cancer of rubbish politics that is rotten,” he said.

The scholar accused these politicians of doing anything for power.

Lawmakers from both sides of the divide, including DAP chairman Karpal Singh and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, had supported the screening of the video in Parliament should Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia see it fit.

However, Pandikar rejected the idea today, stating that rules and regulations of the house had to be adhered to.

PUM also called for the home ministry to take necessary action against those who have spread the video as it has clearly run afoul of the law.

It also asked for the Council of Rulers to intervene in the matter.

malaysiakini: Bishop rails against selective morality..... by Terence Netto

Bishop rails against selective morality
Terence Netto
Apr 5, 2011
Catholic Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing denounced as “morally squalid” and “indefensible” the inaction of the secular authorities over the screening of the video allegedly depicting Anwar Ibrahim in a sexual transaction with a woman.

bishop paul tan“When the secular authorities abdicated their responsibility to deal with those responsible for the screening, their inaction beget further evil,” said the titular head of the Malacca-Johor diocese, in comments to Malaysiakini on the circulation of a two-minute clip purportedly from a video depicting the opposition leader having sex with a woman that was screened to a select audience two weeks ago.

In latest developments, the wife and children of Anwar Ibrahim said they have seen the two-minute clip and have publicly denied that the person depicted as having sex in the videotape is the PKR de facto leader.

Commenting on this, Bishop Tan, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, said: “Now that the public has heard from the family, it is incumbent on the authorities to take action against those who screened the video. NONE"Who would know best if the man shown is Anwar or not except his wife and children?”

Elaborating, Tan asserted: “You cannot prevaricate in the face of an evil action that is so clear a violation of the laws.”

“It is morally squalid for people empowered with the civil authority to waffle in the face of transparent evil.

“Their dithering is indefensible. Where the secular authority is supinely weak in the face of evil, it is the duty of the religious authorities to speak up, as otherwise, society would be in mortal peril from the pollution to its morals.

“I have said before that our society is in greater danger from our negligence than from our ignorance,” he said.

NONE“The authorities were negligent in not charging those who publicly purveyed the video in the first place. Now you have fragments from it circulating on the net. One evil leads to another,” lamented the Catholic leader.

Bishop Tan held that the sex video is not a political issue.

“It is first a moral issue before it is anything else. There are clear laws for dealing with it. To ignore the need for their enforcement is to invite the kind of moral confusion from which rescue would be difficult,” he said.

The bishop urged the civil authorities to eschew selective morality, which he said would only spawn “ethical quagmires from which society could only emerge at great cost”.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Alternate Viewpoint: We should stop running away from radiation... By Wade Allison,

Alternate Viewpoint: We should stop running away from radiation

More than 10,000 people have died in the Japanese tsunami and the survivors are cold and hungry. But the media concentrate on nuclear radiation from which no-one has died - and is unlikely to.
House and power station at Dungeness  
Modern reactors are better designed than those at Fukushima - tomorrow's may be better still

Nuclear radiation at very high levels is dangerous, but the scale of concern that it evokes is misplaced. Nuclear technology cures countless cancer patients every day - and a radiation dose given for radiotherapy in hospital is no different in principle to a similar dose received in the environment.

What of Three Mile Island? There were no known deaths there.

And Chernobyl? The latest UN report published on 28 February confirms the known death toll - 28 fatalities among emergency workers, plus 15 fatal cases of child thyroid cancer - which would have been avoided if iodine tablets had been taken (as they have now in Japan). And in each case the numbers are minute compared with the 3,800 at Bhopal in 1984, who died as a result of a leak of chemicals from the Union Carbide pesticide plant.

Becquerels and Sieverts

  • A becquerel (Bq), named after French physicist Henri Becquerel, is a measure of radioactivity
  • A quantity of radioactive material has an activity of 1Bq if one nucleus decays per second - and 1kBq if 1,000 nuclei decay per second
  • A sievert (Sv) is a measure of radiation absorbed by a person, named after Swedish medical physicist Rolf Sievert
  • A milli-sievert (mSv) is a 1,000th of a Sievert
So what of the radioactivity released at Fukushima? How does it compare with that at Chernobyl? Let's look at the measured count rates. The highest rate reported, at 1900 on 22 March, for any Japanese prefecture was 12 kBq per sq m (for the radioactive isotope of caesium, caesium-137).

A map of Chernobyl in the UN report shows regions shaded according to rate, up to 3,700 kBq per sq m - areas with less than 37 kBq per sq m are not shaded at all. In round terms, this suggests that the radioactive fallout at Fukushima is less than 1% of that at Chernobyl.

The other important radioisotope in fallout is iodine, which can cause child thyroid cancer.

This is only produced when the reactor is on and quickly decays once the reactor shuts down (it has a half life of eight days). The old fuel rods in storage at Fukushima, though radioactive, contain no iodine.

But at Chernobyl the full inventory of iodine and caesium was released in the initial explosion, so that at Fukushima any release of iodine should be much less than 1% of that at Chernobyl - with an effect reduced still further by iodine tablets.

Unfortunately, public authorities react by providing over-cautious guidance - and this simply escalates public concern.
Over-reaction On the 16th anniversary of Chernobyl, the Swedish radiation authorities, writing in the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, admitted over-reacting by setting the safety level too low and condemning 78% of all reindeer meat unnecessarily, and at great cost.

Bottled water distributed in Tokyo 
Bottled water was handed out in Tokyo this week to mothers of young babies

Unfortunately, the Japanese seem to be repeating the mistake. On 23 March they advised that children should not drink tap water in Tokyo, where an activity of 200 Bq per litre had been measured the day before. Let's put this in perspective. The natural radioactivity in every human body is 50 Bq per litre - 200 Bq per litre is really not going to do much harm.

In the Cold War era most people were led to believe that nuclear radiation presents a quite exceptional danger understood only by "eggheads" working in secret military establishments.

To cope with the friendly fire of such nuclear propaganda on the home front, ever tighter radiation regulations were enacted in order to keep all contact with radiation As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), as the principle became known.

This attempt at reassurance is the basis of international radiation safety regulations today, which suggest an upper limit for the general public of 1 mSv per year above natural levels.

This very low figure is not a danger level, rather it's a small addition to the levels found in nature - a British person is exposed to 2.7 mSv per year, on average. My book Radiation and Reason argues that a responsible danger level based on current science would be 100 mSv per month, with a lifelong limit of 5,000 mSv, not 1 mSv per year.
New attitude People worry about radiation because they cannot feel it. However, nature has a solution - in recent years it has been found that living cells replace and mend themselves in various ways to recover from a dose of radiation.

These clever mechanisms kick in within hours and rarely fail, except when they are overloaded - as at Chernobyl, where most of the emergency workers who received a dose greater than 4,000 mSv over a few hours died within weeks.

"Some might ask whether I would accept radioactive waste buried 100 metres under my own house?”
However, patients receiving a course of radiotherapy usually get a dose of more than 20,000 mSv to vital healthy tissue close to the treated tumour. This tissue survives only because the treatment is spread over many days giving healthy cells time for repair or replacement.

In this way, many patients get to enjoy further rewarding years of life, even after many vital organs have received the equivalent of more than 20,000 years' dose at the above internationally recommended annual limit - which makes this limit unreasonable.

A sea-change is needed in our attitude to radiation, starting with education and public information.

Then fresh safety standards should be drawn up, based not on how radiation can be excluded from our lives, but on how much we can receive without harm - mindful of the other dangers that beset us, such as climate change and loss of electric power. Perhaps a new acronym is needed to guide radiation safety - how about As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS)?

Modern reactors are better designed than those at Fukushima - tomorrow's may be better still, but we should not wait. Radioactive waste is nasty but the quantity is small, especially if re-processed. Anyway, it is not the intractable problem that many suppose.

Some might ask whether I would accept it if it were buried 100 metres under my own house? My answer would be: "Yes, why not?" More generally, we should stop running away from radiation.

Wade Allison is a nuclear and medical physicist at the University of Oxford, the author of Radiation and Reason (2009) and Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging (2006).