DEBATE on the Budget 2014 hardly took off last week because the MPs were preoccupied with arguing on the use of executive jets by both the Prime Minister and his wife.
Even when the debate had moved on to other topics, the Opposition MPs would inevitably drag it back into the limelight, sparking another round of argument.
Minister in Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim – whose gift of the gab is well-known – was certainly made to sweat as the Opposition trained their guns on him, repeatedly questioning the reason for the Prime Minister not to fly on commercial airlines for his trips.
Azmin Ali (PKR-Gombak) had started the ball rolling by demanding to know why Najib did not use Malaysia Airlines in a show of support for the national carrier, adding that his Singaporean counterpart travelled on commercial flights.
“There is a need to exercise prudent and responsible spending. Since MAS flies to London, why can’t he (Najib) fly on MAS? They now have Airbus A380 which is the most sophisticated and advanced aircraft,” he said.
Anthony Loke Siew Fook (DAP-Seremban) pointed out that the Government’s executive jets made 372 flights last year, which translated to more than one flight each day.
Shahidan explained that the executive jets were also at the disposal of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the Deputy Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Deputy Prime Minister while other ministers and individuals could use these as well with the Prime Minister’s permission.
“Furthermore, the Prime Minister, as head of Government, is entitled to use the executive jets for his travels,” he said.
The RM182mil spent last year was for the fuel and maintenance of six of the Government’s executive planes, added Shahidan.
“If a car breaks down, we can pull up by the roadside but if there is a fault to a plane, pray tell, where do we stop?” he said.
On the Opposition’s statement that the Singaporean Prime Minister used commercial airlines, he said:
“Why are you comparing? Where is the Prime Minister taking a flight to? The island is small, smaller than Perlis. Just at gear one, you would have completed (a round of) Singapore.”
However, the minister’s answer drew flak from the Opposition with Azmin criticising him for belittling the neighbouring country and saying that there was no reason why Najib could not use commercial flights as well.
This led to another round of argument with Shahidan accusing Azmin of belittling the Prime Minister by demanding that he travel by commercial airlines, which the Gombak MP fended off with a reply that the issue concerned millions of ringgit in public funds.
However, when Azmin popped the more controversial question – whether the Prime Minister’s wife was entitled to use the executive jet – it was obvious that the minister had to struggle for words.
The minister’s reply – that for her to use the executive jet would need the green light from the Cabinet which had approved her recent travel to the Qatar International Businesswomen Forum in Doha because it was “deemed important” – created a stir among the Opposition.
Azmin then sought a clarification from Shahidan if the Prime Minister was present when the Cabinet approved his wife’s use of the jet, saying that this would have amounted to conflict of interest.
However, Shahidan’s reply was drowned out in the choruses of voices that followed.
Mohamed Hanipa Maidin (PAS-Sepang) then asked Shahidan if he was aware that he could get the Prime Minister “charged”, adding that it was an offence for a minister to be present when Cabinet made a decision in favour of his wife.
Despite Shahidan’s insistence that Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor’s use of the jet was approved by the Cabinet and that “who went out (of the room) or who didn’t, you have no right to know”, Hanipa kept pressing for an answer.
It was obvious that the continuous attacks by the Opposition had, by this time, overwhelmed Shahidan as his replies made very little sense.
Later, at the parliament lobby, the minister was reported to have said that Rosmah’s visit was due to an official invitation from the Qatari government.
“As Malaysians, we should be proud and thankful for her initiative and effort as the Prime Minister’s wife. We have to remember that visits to foreign countries are not for enjoyment but that these were due to a sense of responsibility and everything had been carried out transparently,” he said.
Although there are more pressing matters that the lawmakers should debate on, the Opposition is not likely to back down on this issue.
The minister can do everyone a favour by making sure that when that time comes, he is well prepared. Dewan Rakyat sits again tomorrow.