(Malacca, Saturday): The 2001 Budget presented by the Finance Minister, Tun Daim Zainuddin in Parliament yesterday has been hailed as a budget to usher Malaysia into the K-economy with the central role to be played by the information and communications technologies (ICT).
What is sad is that the Finance Minister has missed the truism that there can be no successful K-economy if there is no K-governance.
The Parliament homepage is the living advertisement why Malaysia cannot successfully transform into a K-economy without K-government and K-Parliament, involving a full change of IT-mindset and culture at all levels of society, from the highest leadership down to the men and women in the street.
From 1996 top 1999, I had repeatedly spoken in Parliament about the important role that must be played by Parliament if Malaysia is to take the quantum leap into an information society, but all the suggestions and criticisms had fallen on deaf ears and the Parliamentary homepage today remains as "dinosaurian" as ever, despite the vast sums of money being spent every year for the vote on the parliamentary homepage. I just wonder where all these monies have really gone to and a full public audit and accountability may throw light on why all the talk about ICT and even money spent on ICT are not necessarily conducive to the establishment of an K-economy.
In actual fact, Daim’s budget speech yesterday was another classic example that all talk and money spent on ICT need not necessarily produce a K-economy. Daim opened his two-hour budget presentation on "Achievements in the Pre-Crisis Period Towards Vision 2020", referring in particular to various megaprojects like the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) "to rival any airport in the world".
It is now clear that the KLIA has no "rival" in the world - as the most expensive and least used international airport in the world.
Coincidentally, the latest issue of Asiaweek came online yesterday with an article on the KLIA, under the heading "Malaysia's (Not So) International Airport - This is One White Elephant That May Not Fly" by Assif Shameen, which is the worst possible advertisement not only for the KLIA but also for Malaysia’s ICT ambitions.
Referring to "Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed's strategy in the pre-Crisis era" where "Tens of billions of dollars were spent on prestige projects, from highways to skyscrapers to gleaming shopping malls", Assif wrote:
"While Malaysia's billion-dollar 88-storeyed landmark Petronas Tower (60% occupied at last count) doesn't quite look like a white elephant, even though it is nearly half empty and may never provide its owners a decent return on their investment, the US$2.6 billion Kuala Lumpur International Airport or KLIA is now decidedly starting to look like one, though.
"Built an hour and half drive away from the Malaysian capital in what was once a palm oil plantation near Sepang, KLIA has never taken off since it opened over two and half years ago.
"Two weeks ago, British Airways suspended all services to and from KLIA. BA's decision to pull out of the airport follows similar decisions by Australia's Qantas and Ansett Airlines and Germany's Lufthansa over the past two years.
"Other major global airlines like United, American, Swissair, Air France, and SAS have all avoided flying to Malaysia. KLIA is now reduced to receiving a handful of Asian airlines, as well as some second-tier international carriers.
"Bangkok airport, which caters to twice as many passengers each day, is used by three times as many foreign airlines as KLIA. The gap between them is widening in favor of the Thai capital, even though it has a tired, old and cramped airport."
"East Asia already has several airline hubs - Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Another hub so close to the existing three hubs seemed like a non-starter.
"But Mahathir's aim wasn't to displace Singapore or Hong Kong, just to take some business away from them. Still, airports aren't just about passengers. They are also about cargo.
"KLIA lags way behind in cargo, because Malaysian exporters tend to truck their goods to Singapore's Changi, from where they can reach global markets more cost effectively.
"Passengers to and from Malaysia are doing the same by taking the shuttle flight to Singapore to connect to other global destinations.
"With the advent of super jumbos like the new Airbus A3XX or Boeing's 747-Stretch X, airports around the world will be further divided into hubs and spokes.
"Hubs will be airports where all the major regional and global airlines fly to and from, while local and regional airlines take passengers to nearby spokes.
"Singapore and Hong Kong have already carved their niches as Asia's premier hubs. Bangkok is actually bigger than Singapore and carried 28 million passengers over the past 12 months compared to Singapore's 27 million and Hong Kong's 30 million. KLIA, which is 63rd biggest airport in the world and 11th biggest in Asia carried just 15 million passengers during the past 12 months.
"The success of Bangkok airport as a hub proves an important point. I believe you don't need to spend billions on infrastructure to get a lot of business.
"So what is Kuala Lumpur to do about its US$2.6 billion investment? Malaysian officials still seem to believe they can turn their little spoke into a huge hub. An annual Grand Prix fills the airport on the morning after, but it can't turn a spoke into a hub all year round.
"Malaysians are talking about offering lower landing fees and other enticements to lure foreign carriers to KLIA. But I believe they might want to try open sky policy. Let any airline land at KLIA and take passengers or cargo to anywhere it wants to at any time.
"Sure, it might force the already debt-ridden flag-carrier Malaysia Airlines into further financial disarray and even necessitate a state-sponsored Malaysian-style bailout.
"But it would dig KLIA from the hole it's stuck in. Malaysian capital might not Become a hub it has always wanted to be. But it might just prevent KLIA from becoming world's most expensive ‘spoke’ airport."
Daim’s 2001 budget speech and the Asiaweek article give a sobering
reminder to Malaysians about the difference between budget speech rhetoric
and reality - which extends not only to the KLIA but to the government’s
K-economy plan as well.