NST Leader: Short of rice?

LOCAL rice has gone missing. Not just consumers are wondering, wholesalers and retailers, too, are asking: where is local rice? A very good question. If we produce 70 per cent, it must be in the shops. But it is not there.

Datuk Ameer Ali Mydin, owner of the Mydin Hypermarket chain and president of the Bumiputera Retailers Organisation, says local rice had disappeared a couple of months ago.

From hypermarkets to supermarkets to retailers are saying the supply of local rice has been negligible. This fits a Malaysian pattern. When prices of imported goods go up, local goods are "made" to disappear, only to reappear as imported ones. Put it to greedy commerce.

Local rice has a control price of RM26 per 10kg, while imported rice is being sold at RM33 per 10kg. A price difference of RM7 per bag is quite a temptation many find hard to resist. Next week, when the price of imported rice is slated to be RM39 per 10kg, expect more local rice to be dressed up as imported rice.

Are syndicates going around shops buying all the local rice for a later sale? No. Millers and wholesalers are not supplying the outlets.

And what is the Agriculture and Food Security Ministry's response? We have asked the millers and rice wholesalers to increase the local white rice supply by 20 per cent.

Really, asks Ameer Ali. We would do the same. He and his fellow marketers are pointing to the shelves empty of local rice and the ministry is talking of having squeezed an agreement to supply 20 per cent more. He has every right to be baffled for himself and on behalf of his fellow retailers.

Where is the proof of this "extra" 20 per cent, Ameer Ali asks. Here is the thing. Local rice shortage is a two-month-old story. Mydin and other outlets' shelves have been receiving less than their allocation since then.

The Agriculture and Food Security Ministry should have done something by now. Let's be generous by ignoring this early notice and focus on its engagement with the millers and rice wholesalers on Aug 27.

As we breathe the air of today — nine days removed from that August day — Ameer Ali has the right to ask, as this newspaper asked yesterday: "Where is the local rice?" It appears to us that in the last nine months, Malaysia has acquired a new habit: let's wait for the prime minister. Let's be blunt.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim may have broad enough shoulders to bear the weight of the cabinet, but he can't do everything.

Agriculture and Food Security Ministry, do something to get the bags of local rice to hypermarkets, supermarkets and retail outlets. In the meantime, there is a piece of advice from Ameer Ali for the government to ponder. Try not to be too obsessed with price.

He is right. It distorts our economy. Instead, he advises that Putrajaya focus on supply. Two things must go, he says, before distortion of the economy disappears. One is price control. Take local rice. Its control price has been fixed at RM2.60 per kg since 2008.

That is unreal. Two is monopoly. More than one player — no duopoly, please — means better supply and fairer prices. Otherwise, it will be an egg story: here today, gone tomorrow.

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