Consumer Advocate Dato' Dr Jacob George wrote Friday July 14th, 2003. 

LACK  OF PROFESSIONALISM & INTERNATIONAL  DIPLOMACY SHOWS IN HANDLING  OF PALM OIL FOR RAIL  DEAL!
 


One, would have assumed that Malaysian politicians, policy  makers, media groups, would have learnt, some rather bitter,  but, useful  lessons, in "international diplomacy and reasonable  behavior", after their  "stand off with India", when, local police  were accused of using "rather bizarre  and high handed tactics"  detaining a large group of Indian nationals, who were  here,as "IT  Consultants!"

That incident, was well publicized internationally and  resulted in India virtually "ticking off" our Ministers, on official  visit on  Indian soil, while another, proposed visit involving  another senior Malaysian  Minister was hastily cancelled, their  national hockey team withdraw from a  earlier planned international  hockey meet here, and, long term economic and  bilateral relationships  would have been severely strained and dented if, fast  track apologies  and damage control efforts were not put into place by an  embarrassed  Malaysian government! 

I must state rather proudly here, that credit must be  given to the "quick and speedy remedial action in diplomacy"  by an alert and  experienced, Works Minister, Samy Vellu, whose  personal touch and involvement,  saved the nation, of perhaps,  a barrage of reprisals, that would have left us  quite, vulnerable  economically. 

But, Malaysian politicians forget rather quickly of "past  sins" and thus, we seem to have come a full circle now, with various  misleading  media reports and comments, by "young, fast track politicians",  appointed at the  Treasury, whose comments and actions, have been  in "bad taste" and if  unfettered, would reopen "old wounds" with  India.  

The only difference being, that this time, the fiasco  would also involve two Asian giants, India and China!

And the cause  of it all, the "inexplicable" delay of the  letter of awards for  the Malaysian stretch of the high-speed Trans-ASEAN Railway  project  connecting Singapore with China's Kunming.  

The said  MoUs was signed in May 2001, where India is  reported to get $2.63  billion for laying double tracks for a stretch of 338.8  kilometers  from Ipoh to Pedang Besar, called the Northern Grid, and China $2.1  billion for the southern grid to build 297km from Seremban to  Johor Baru in the  south. 

But, the problem is, despite the memoranda of  understanding  (MoUs) being signed with India's government-owned International  (Indian) Railway Construction Co (IRCON) and China Railway Engineering  Corp  (CREC), the matter is still on the negotiating table after  two years and with no  end in sight, with "new complications",  after recent reports in the Malaysian  media, that the projects  will be undertaken by a Malaysian group, who is  strongly connected  to the Malaysian political elites, is highly publicized  internationally! 

To add to  the confusion, ill advised comments pertaining  to the project  coming from a "junior" politician, appointed on a hot political  seat and cabinet position, sends "shock waves" to senior policymakers  associated  with the project from China and India!

 I must add  that "diplomatic niceties" were ignored, when  comments were unilaterally  made, without first advising, either, New Dehli or  Beijing! 

Among the  media statements was one, which appeared in  Mailmoney of the  Malay Mail July 12,headlined 'Bidding War For Rail Job Hots  Up'. 

But, senior policymakers  associated with the said  project in India and China have asked  - "What Bidding War?' 

To them, these comments and statements were irritating and  obviously clear, that someone was totally "misinformed and firing  away, with all  forms of claims, like a loose cannon" and without  hesitation, that the comments  published locally and circulated  abroad, may result in "reprisals of an economic  kind!" 

Ironically, all these comments have also come, after  public comments at a recent International Transport Conference  in Kuala Lumpur  by  former Transport Minister, Ling Liong Sik  and the Managing Director of KTMB  reiterating, that the Letter  of Award would be given to both IRCON and CREC  "very soon"! 

For the record,  not a single meter of track has been laid  in Malaysia for the  high-speed Trans-ASEAN Railway, although the initial work by  a  Malaysian company involved for the Rawang Ipoh stretch, has run  into severe  problems, delays and the cost "sky rocketing" - a  common ingredient,  when certain, "politically connected companies"  are awarded multi million  ringgit projects! 

If this project  fails to take off, as Malaysia haggles  over the price of palm  oil price - the currency of payment for the contracts  worth RM18  billion (US$4.73 billion)or worse, India and China decide "enough  is  enough" and pull out, it will result in damage on three  fronts! 

It could  leave our beloved retiring Prime Minister,  Mahathir Mohamad,  in an "embarrassed position" internationally ,we could expect  trade  repercussions from India and China or our non compliance of an  well  publicized MOU with two foreign governments would make us  a pariah,  among nations and others may fear to, in future, get  involved in any bilateral  agreements for fear that "local considerations  and politics", could  derail,even international undertakings! 

Interestingly,  while the Malaysian "Sam Blacks and Double  Js " haggle over "the  cost and politics of the day" - Thailand and Vietnam is  ahead, with  Vietnam laying tracks for the Vietnam-Cambodia sector rather  fast! 

The irony however  is -  Malaysia as the secretariat for  the entire project has done  nothing concrete! 

According to friends in New Dehli, policymakers there  are  upset at the recent comments and statements made by Malaysians that  there is  indeed, a "bidding war!"  

Or, is it the  "figment of the imagination of an  underworked mind of a politician",  a sandiwara played out, by Malaysian  predators, parasites and  cronies - confusing the market - with half truths for  their own  agenda!

The matter is further made difficult, when, the name  of  Malaysia's new corporate "hotshot" Syed Mokhtar Al Bukhary,  the alleged "new  darling of the administration lately", is mentioned  in this news reports  emerging from Putrajaya!  

This is not  new, as, in the past, we have had others names  like "the Tajudins  and  the Halims"  been circulated linking them with other  multi  million ringgit government awards.

Some of them have been embroiled in controversies and  one  cannot, but wonder, whether new names would be added to that  list and how  "untampered history", will treat them. 

But, what  is troubling about this transaction is  the claims  that it can be done by the group led by Malaysian Mining Corp Bhd  (MMC) and Gamuda Bhd that will be 40% cheaper at RM14.5 billion,  which the same  report claims, is cheaper than the bids by both,  Indian Railway Construction Co.  and China Railway Engineering  Corp. 

To make matters worse, newly appointed, Second Finance  Minister, Dr. Jamaludin Jarjis, was also extensively quoted and  whose comments,  I am advised, has caused "severe irritation" in  the corridors of power in New  Dehli and Beijing! 

As such,  international observers have claimed that  Malaysia was playing  "high stakes poker" and added that, if there was a slip up  - the  Malaysian economy and its foreign image on a government to government  basis, will be severely damaged and irreparable, since, the ones  they will upset  most is both China and India! 

For one,  Malaysian politicians and policymakers - the  "Jaguh Kampong" here,  need to be blamed for this delay and  fiasco. 

These "Jaguh  Kampong" attempt to play at both ends from  the middle in the  railway deals with India in the north and China in the south  of  peninsular Malaysia is becoming sour, with time wasted and no agreement  in  sight. The memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with India's government-owned  International (Indian) Railway Construction Co (IRCON) and China  Railway  Engineering Corp (CREC) are still on the negotiating table  after two years.

Not a single meter of track has been  laid in Malaysia for the high-speed  Trans-ASEAN Railway, although  retiring Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad assured  his Association  of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners last month of a  railway  link connecting Singapore with China's Kunming. India has not publicly  responded to the ongoing public comments, but, China  have!

In  an unusual move,China's CREC  announced through a diplomatically-couched  statement that appeared in the NST -  Business Times June 24 headlined  'Palm oil - for rail deal with China still on  track' claimed that  the deal with China for constructing the southern grid was  not  canceled but was taking a long time to reach an agreement.

That was quite diplomatic!  

Both CREC and IRCON feel  frustrated,  as Malaysian treasury officials remained tightlipped , politicians  and others are making various statements publicly on the matter  which is causing  severe irritation and anger and one would hope  that common sense will prevail  and we will honor our MOUs and  get on with the job! 

Our politicians must remember that  India is  the largest importer of palm oil, nearly 700,000 tons last year.  

In June, Indian import of palm oil  increased by more than 34.6 percent because of a delayed monsoon  that affected  edible-oil crops. The total increase in April this  year was 41 percent over the  same period last year.  

As the barter trade partner for  Malaysia,  India feels that the progress is stymied because of minor details  that  can be sorted out easily if Malaysia is receptive enough.  I am been advised the  Chinese feel the same way. 

Perhaps, we need to ask quite  sincerely,  as to whose interest, we are serving now by this inexplicable  delays? 

Cronies, predators depending on  their  political links for survival or the rights and interest of over  22 million  Malaysians in a nation that has had till now, a well  respected image in the eyes  of all nations of honoring our MOUs  and all those, in the ASEAN region, who are  looking to Malaysia  for a fast paced leadership by example, so that this project  will  become a reality?