(Penang, Monday): The swift response of the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to the DAP's Sungai Bakap by-election demand against exorbitant and unfair toll increase for North-South Expressway is welcome but not adequate.
When I announced Sdr. Goh Kheng Huat as the DAP candidate for the Sungai Bakap by-election at a press conference last Saturday, I had said that the by-election on Nov. 8 will give Penang voters an opportunity to pass a mid-term verdict on the Barisan Nasional after its unprecedented landslide victory in the 1995 general elections.
At the press conference, I hightlighted the toll issue of the North-South Expressway as one of the primary by-election issues, demanding that the Government consider the DAP proposal that it take the political decision to renegotiate the contract to end the provision allowing PLUS to impose an annual increase of the North-South Expressway toll rate for the next 21 years until 2018.
As of June this year, Malaysians had paid PLUS over RM3.2 billion in toll for the use of the North-South Expressway and PLUS had forecast to collect RM80 billion from toll on the North-South Expressway during the 30-year concession period - which is very conservative as based on actual traffic volume which is well beyond original estimates, PLUS could collect from RM120 billion to RM160 billion though toll on the North-South Expressway.
Anticipating that the unfair and exorbitant North-South Expressway toll increase would be a hot issue in the Sungai Bakap by-election, Anwar announced that PLUS would only be allowed a slight increase in toll rates in January.
Unfortunately, Anwar had not given details as to how "slight" would be the toll increase, and whether finally, it would be the consumers who would have to bear the final burden of such modifications of the toll increase.
The Works Minister, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu had admitted that 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 21 years!
For instance, following public outcry against the proposed 33.3% toll increase by PLUS last year, the Government postponed the implementation of the toll increase for nine months. This was no loss to PLUS, as the government had to pay PLUS RM176 million in compensation as a result, as under the North-South Expressway contract, PLUS has the right to demand compensation from the Government if it is not allowed to impose toll increases every year for the next 21 years!
This then becomes a "tails I win, heads you lose" situation for Malaysians, for the RM176 million compensation paid by the government to PLUS for the nine-month postponement in the toll increase last year is finally the taxpayers' money with the people being the eventual losers.
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.
The strong DAP opposition in 1987 to the North-South Expressway has now been proved right. If the Gerakan and UMNO Youth, which are now complaining about the North-South Expressway toll increase, 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 be burdened with a collective toll ranging from RM120 billion to RM150 billion during the 30-year concession period with an annual increase of North-South Expressway toll charges for the next 21 years just to enable UMNO to finance the Putra World Trade Centre.
The people of Sungai Bakap must speak up loud and clear that the North-South Expressway contract must be renegotiated so that it is fair and just to the ordinary people, and that such assurances of a renegotiation be firmly made by the Barisan Nasional government in the by-election.