(Sitiawan, Sunday): During my two-day visit to Sitiawan over the weekend, I had the opportunity to exchange views with various cross-sections of the people of Sitiawan, whose predominant concern is the deepening economic crisis, as to how it could affect affect the quality of life of Malaysians.
Two economic crisis forums for Manjong were held, one in Ayer Tawar in Mandarin on Saturday and another in Sitiawan in English language last night, and both forums were very well attended, showing the need both for the people to be informed about the economic crisis as well to convey their views, concerns and anxieties about the economic crisis, which will get worse before it can get better.
On Friday, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir made the third concrete announcement about the National Economic Action Council (NEAC) in the past eight weeks since his first announcement on Nov. 20 that the government would set up NEAC which would have emergency powers although a state of emergency had not been declared to deal with the economic crisis. The second announcement was made by Mahathir exactly one month later on Dec. 20 on the appointment of Tun Daim Zainuddin as NEAC executive director. The third announcement on Friday was the formation of state-level National Economic Action Council to be chaired by the respective mentris besar and chief ministers.
DAP has strong reservations about the NEAC,whether it is the proper response to the national economic crisis without undermining the principles of parliamentary democracy and Cabinet responsibility in creating an Emergency Supra-Cabinet Economic Council superseding the powers of the Cabinet in important areas of economic policy. We have made clear our view that the proper response is for the Prime Minister to carry out a major cabinet reshuffle to remove the deadwoods in the Cabinet, and to form National Economic Crisis Cabinet with technocrats and experts as members of the Cabinet with the expertise and knowledge to deal with the national economic crisis, and most important of all, who can command public confidence in their integrity, competence and dedication.
DAP also has strong reservations about the appointment of Daim as NEAC Executive Director and we sought clarification whether Daim would relinquish all his private corporate activities and would be full-time in his new capacity as Economic Czar of the country during the economic crisis. Despite our strong reservations about the NEAC, which reflected widespread concerns of thinking Malaysians, DAP will put aside all political differences and give full co-operation to the NEAC to ensure that the government, society and people can fight and overcome the economic crisis as one unit.
All DAP State Committees have been directed to extend the fullest co-operative with their respective State NEACs to tide the people through the economic crisis in the shortest possible time and with the minimum of avoidable pain, sufferings and hardships to the people.
During my visit to Sitiawan, I discovered that one area where the economic crisis would hit the people in the area hard is the ringgit depreciation.
Sitiawan had always established a name for itself in Malaysia for the long-standing concern of the people of Sitiawan to provide the best and highest educational opportunities for their children, and I believe that the number of university graduates and professionals who were Sitiawan-born and bred per capita is comparable with the best in other parts of the country.
This has now created a special problem for Sitiawan. I understand that there could easily be about one thousand students from Sitiawan who are pursuing higher studies overseas, and the 90 per cent depreciation of the ringgit has imposed great hardships on their families.
On the basis that a family has to spend RM60,000 a year to support one student overseas, this would mean that Sitiawan is spending RM60 million a year tio support 1,000 students for higher studies overseas.
With the Malaysian ringgit halving its value, costing RM4.6 to RM4.8 to a US dollar or close to RM8 to a Briitsh pound, Sitiawan would have to find another RM60 million to ensure that the 1,000 Sitiawan students overseas could complete their studies.
This is a problem which is not confined to Sitiawan alone, but a nation-wide problem, as Malaysia has about 70,000 students pursuing higher studies abroad.
I call on the Education Minister, Datuk Najib Tun Razak, to give special attention to this problem and allow Malaysian students overseas who are financially stranded because of the ringgit crisis to apply for loans from the National Higher Education Fund to complete their higher studies.
If necessary, the RM100 million National Higher Education Fund should be given an increase of allocation even by another RM400 million so as to provide a life-line to Malaysian students financially stranded overseas, for investment in education is investing in the future of the nation and the government must ensure that our future national competitiveness is not in any way compromised as a result of the current economic crisis.
When I visited Pulau Pangkor, I was told that tourist business last year on the island had gone down by some 50 per cent as a result of various adverse developments, like the three-month-long national haze catastrophe which frightened off Western tourists who are highly sensitized to the short, medium and long-term dangers of air pollution to health and pollution of the beaches from oil-spills in the Straits of Malacca.
Three weeks after the last oil spill incident, I could still see tarred balls on the beaches, which is the perennial complaint of tourists who are drawn by promises of good beaches to visit Pulau Pangkor, to find their holidays and swims spoiled by the tarred balls left behind by the oils spills in the Straits of Malacca.
The government has not cleaned up the beaches but only perpetuated the problem. All that the government has done is to collect the tarred balls from the sea near the beach and buried them in trenches at the beach, which are washed into the sea during high tide!
The Manjong District Council, which is the local government authority responsible for Pulau Pangkor, does not give Pulau Pangkor much priority although the island is promoted internationally to earn tourist dollars for the nation and the state. Refuse, for example, are not collected while the beaches are not kept clean and safe for tourists.
The time has come for the formation of a Pulau Pangkor Development Authority to be responsible for all local government functions on the island as well as to promite and develop Pulau Pangkor into a premier tourist isle in the world.