THERE was a time when a menteri besar of a state I used to cover had a very clever escape clause whenever he was confronted with a hard-hitting question.
“Kita akan siasat” (we will investigate) or “kita akan tubuhkan jawatankuasa untuk teliti masalah ini” (we will form a committee to resolve this problem) would be his trademark reply.
That was way back then. Fast forward to the present. One would expect our politicians to have moved on from the “kita akan siasat” or “kita akan tubuhkan jawatankuasa” stage.
In today’s world, one would demand that public interest issues be resolved with determination and speedily.
In New Malaysia, this is the people’s expectation. In fact, it should be the norm.
But two ‘old’ cases in recent days may make the Joe Public scratch their heads in bewilderment. They are the illegal granite quarry issue in Penang and the United States ban on Malaysian rubber gloves from a local company.
The reaction from the island-state authorities to the quarry issue, and the response from the Human Resources Ministry to the US ban are mind-bending, to say the least.
In Penang, the state government was jolted out of its slumber when environmental group Sahabat Alam Malaysia expressed disgust over how the illegal quarry had been carrying out activities for the past three years.
Its president, Meenakshi Raman, questioned the authorities for not acting with more urgency, despite the quarry operator’s failure to comply with two stop-work orders issued this year, and for violating other laws.
The quarry is not operating in some obscure hidden part of the island, but on hilly terrain which is more than 76m high, and in an environmentally sensitive area close to water catchment forests and the Teluk Bahang dam. It is easily visible to anyone who cares to look.
Shockingly, despite latest assurances, checks by the New Straits Times yesterday showed the quarry is still operating.
The state government has since admitted it knew about the illegal quarry all along. However, when asked why nothing was done to put an end to the operations, all the state government said was it “will act” against the culprits.
State Local Government chairman Jagdeep Singh Deo was quoted as saying that “investigation papers and relevant documents had been submitted to the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) legal adviser for further action”. Really?
Three years and counting, and only now this is being done. “Enforcement is determined by law and if the law says we have to issue notices, then that’s all we can do. If enforcement is insufficient, then we may have to relook the matter,” he was reported to have said.
MBPP Mayor Datuk Yew Tung Siang had an even better answer. He said a police report had been lodged against the illegal quarry last month. “The police are investigating and they have asked for a week or two to complete their investigation. We have our plan on what we are going to do and we are working closely with the police,” he said.
Yes! It’s gratifying indeed to know that the MBPP finally has a plan, after three years of doing little or nothing to put an end to the illegal quarry operations. This whole fiasco stinks to high heaven and it may be prudent for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to look into how the operator had escaped action all this while.
The Penang government, as Meenakshi rightly pointed out, needs to explain why it failed to urgently take more stern action under the National Land Code. Its failure, she said, clearly smacks of gross negligence.
Turning to the US ban on products from one Malaysian glove producer for using forced labour in its operations, the response from the Human Resources Ministry rings equally shallow. Minister Kula Segaran issued a statement that the ministry “plans to meet” with all rubber glove makers to explain the repercussions of forced labour in their operations.
Kula said he had spoken “many times” about the need for companies to eradicate forced labour in their operations and supply chain. He said among steps that had been taken included inspection for elements of forced labour and educating employers on the need to comply with labour laws.
In the particular glove factory’s case, he said it had been charged and issued a fine. That’s it — case closed and it’s back to business as usual.
This cannot go on. We cannot go on treating issues which are staring at us in the face like they are some petty matters which can easily be swept under the carpet with slap-on-the-wrist type of punishments.
There are clear warning signs of worker exploitation in many sectors, as the minister had acknowledged in a Feb 2 statement which said the “ministry is monitoring more than 10 companies for violating the Employment Act against its foreign workers”.
It is time greater urgency and resolve is taken by the authorities to prevent issues like illegal quarries and errant employers from continuing with operations with little regard for the law.
This inaction and slow response to illegal acts cannot be allowed to go on; strong and deterrent punishment must be pursued.
We need urgent and stern action before Malaysia’s good name is tarnished further.
The writer is a senior news editor at the New Straits Times who feels less talk and more action is needed to save earth from mankind.