With the deferment of the various mega-projects, there appears to be a suspension of the privatisation policy. The government should now encourage discussion of alternative public sector reforms which might be instituted, as the privatisation policy and process has accentuated the problem of corruption, abuses of power and disregard of public interest.
Public outcry at another round of toll increase by PLUS for the North-South Expressway beginning next year is evidence of growing public impatience and intolerance at the highly one-sided expressway concession contract, which allows PLUS to introduce an annual increase of toll rate for the next 22 years.
It is good to see that various Barisan Nasional component parties like Gerakan and UMNO Youth getting agitated by the North-South Expressway toll increases although I would like to ask where were they when the DAP single-handedly opposed the unfair privatisation of the North-South Expressway in the eighties, and which was one reason why I ended in the detention under the Internal Security Act for the second time under Operation Lalang ten years ago. Next week, in fact, is the tenth anniversary of Operation Lalang.
The Works Minister, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu has said that he had been directed by the Cabinet to negotiate with PLUS in the next two months, failing which the government would have to pay compensation if PLUS is not allowed to increase its toll rate next year, and in fact, every year for the next 22 years! The Cabinet must be held responsible for renegotiating the North-South Expressway toll contract to end the annual increase of toll rate by PLUS as it had compromised public interest in agreeing to such unfair privatisation contract in the 1980s for the sake of enabling UMNO to pay for Putra World Trade Centre. This admission was made publicly by none other than the Prime Minister and UMNO President, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, and this is an open record.
I am sure Samy Vellu can confirm my statement as he was the Works Minister in charge of the privatisation of the North-South Expressway to United Engineers, the predecessor-in-title to PLUS.
The strong DAP opposition in 1987 to the North-South Expressway has now been proved right, because it has now been taken up by Barisan Nasional component parties, like Gerakan and UMNO Youth, although they are one decade behind the DAP. If the Gerakan and UMNO Youth had been as far-sighted as the DAP ten years ago, then the present and next generation of Malaysians would not have been burdened with such oppressive terms in the North-South Expressway concession contract.
It is unfair to the people of Malaysia, and of the next generation, that they should burdened with an annual increase of North-South Expressway toll charges for the next 22 years just to enable UMNO to build the Putra World Trade Centre.
The ordinary Malaysian people are not interested in the legal niceties of the North-South Expressway Concession contract, which is still protected by the Official Secrets Act. As the decision to privatise the North-South Expressway to United Engineers and later to PLUS was first and last a political one, the people expect and demand that the Cabinet take the political decision to renegotiate the contract to end the provision allowing PLUS to impose an annual increase of the toll rates.
Since June this year, Malaysians have paid PLUS over RM3.2 billion in toll for the use of the North-South Expressway. The time has come for the North-South Expressway concession to be renegotiated to make it fairer to the commuters.
Although privatisation of various services had been carried out in the name of public interest, there has been no mechanism to ensure that public interest is the paramount concern in the operations of privatised entities.
The time has come for the formation of a Privatisation Watchdog Commission to receive and investigate complaints about privatised entities, whether poor service, excessive charges or corrupt practices.
I have received for instance complaints about improprieties, sub-standard services even fraudulent practices running into millions of ringgit committed by a management company which provide management services for Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) in one of the regions in the country, which are billed to IWK but which finally would be borne by the consumers.
There must be a mechanism whereby the public interest in all privatised services could be protected, and I hope the government would give my proposal for the establishment of a Privatisation Watchdog Commission serious consideration.
In this connection, I urge the Government to review and abandon the plan to create a RM360 million annual monopoly for the medical examinations of foreign workers by "privatisation" to Fomema Sdn. Bhd.
Such monopoly creation through the "privatisation" process, leading to increases in the cost of goods and services, is highly objectionable as a matter of principle and most inappropriate at this stage when the country is faced with an economic crisis with the government exhorting the people to tighten belts.
It is most shocking that once again, the public interest had been sacrificed by the creation of a monopoly for the medical examinations of foreign workers, which had been carried out completely without public knowledge and transparency.
The Malaysian public as well as the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), the employers and foreign worker agents were completely in the dark until the announcement by the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng, last month that the government had signed a 15-year contract with Fomema to examine and monitor the health of foreign workers in the country.
Why couldn’t the whole question as to whether it is in the public interest to create a monopoly for the medical examination of foreign workers be submitted to public debate before a final decision is taken by the government, with Malaysians being allowed to give their views as to the pros and cons of such a move?
Fomema would charge RM220 per female worker and RM205 for each male employee, which are well above the current market rates ranging from RM130 to RM180 per worker, or even lower. Fomema’s managing director Dr. Haniffa Abdulla had said that the fee structure was fixed by the Government and the firm was not empowered to make any changes.
Why should the Cabinet fix a fee structure well above the existing market rates, when Cabinet Ministers should know that presently, private practitioners are charging much lower rates?
If there is any justification for the creation of a monopoly for the medical examination of foreign workers, it is to provide a fee structure well below existing market rates.
However, the Fomema will become the first "privatisation" of its kind which will replace existing services at much lower costs with a private monopoly which will impose higher fees and charges.
The profits Fomema stand to gain are not puny. Based on the estimated 1.7 million foreign workers in the country, this would mean an annual turnover of RM360 million of business.
The Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng had said that the date for Foreign Workers Examination and Monitoring Agency (Fomema) Sdn. Bhd. to begin operations will depend on a report by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU).
Chua has failed to answer the first public interest question. Why should the medical examination of foreign workers be "privatised" by creating a monopoly, resulting in higher costs for goods and services. This is in fact an abuse of the privatisation process, which should lead to cheaper and better services through competition, but the reverse taking place here.
What we are seeing is not privatisation at all, but the blatant creation of private monopolies.
I call on Chua Jui Meng to justify the public interest considerations for the creation of the Fomema monopoly for the medical examination of foreign workers’ and to put the whole issue to a vote by Parliament. I am sure there are MPs from the Barisan Nasional who must see that the creation of the Fomema monopoly is a retrograde step at a time when the country is going through an economic crisis.
Finally, let me commend the Finance Minister for his innovative tax rebate of RM400 to be given for the purchase of personal computer by each family. RM60 million is provided for this rebate, which means that the government expects 150,000 families to make use of this rebate. I would go even further and suggest that the RM400 rebate be increased to RM2,000.
We must be mindful that in promoting Information Technology, we must avoid deepening social divisions in the country by creating a new disparity between the information-rich and information-poor on top of other existing disparities.
Children of non-tax paying families would not get any assistance as far as access to personal computers are concerned, and I would call on the Government to establish a special fund to give interest-free loan to all non-tax paying families to acquire personal computers so that they would not be bystanders in the information revolution.