Tackling issues head-on amid crisis

From opposition to government: Dr Wee has taken every challenge in his stride in the past year, including working from home during the pandemic.

NOT many Malaysian Cabinet ministers would take a look at their own performance to assess if they have done enough for the country. But Transport Minister and MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong will not hesitate to do this.

And he did this on his own accord after his first 100 days as Transport Minister in mid-2020. The tabulation of his “achievements” could be seen in his Facebook page, filled with daily updates on his government and political work.

But even after 100 days of presenting his report card, which included amending a law to impose heavy punishment on drunk drivers, this seasoned politician – who was in the Opposition for 22 months prior to re-joining the government – has continued to show strong dedication and commitment in serving the country.

As Transport Minister, he has had a good report card for the past 11 months. Due to his training as a civil engineer specialising in transport – with a Master in Traffic Engineering and a PhD in Transportation Planning – he fits well into this job and his expertise is given recognition by the industry. The RM44bil East Coast Rail Link, not under the Transport Ministry when it was planned under the previous Barisan Nasional administration, is now placed under his purview by the present government.

Beyond transport, Dr Wee has shown how he could make use of his strong international networking to help the nation. When Malaysia was first hit by the deadly Covid-19, Beijing and the Chinese Embassy acted promptly in response to his call to send in masks and protective gear.

In fact, Malaysia was one of the first Asean countries to receive support from China – in kind and experience-sharing – to combat the crisis.

And amid the political chaos in the country, Dr Wee is a stabilising force – though some may question the magnitude of his influence.

Due to the paper-thin majority in Parliament, the government of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has often faced threats and rumours of collapse. Yet Dr Wee has steadfastly stood by Muhyiddin to maintain political stability.

While Dr Wee is not short of critics, his handling of various issues and major projects appears to have earned the respect of many Malaysians – including those who had supported his political rival DAP in the last general election.

Internationally, diplomats and investors of major countries have paid courtesy calls to the Transport Minister. These include the British High Commissioner and leading Chinese investors.

Perhaps, the highest honour accorded to him was the recent briefing he was invited to give to the King on the progress of transportation projects in the country. Not many ministers have enjoyed this privilege. This meeting came after several briefings Dr Wee had given to Johor and other state Sultans.

But as the only Chinese politician in Cabinet, Dr Wee may not be able to claim he has scored well due to the political reality and limitations he faces.

Like other non-Malay politicians, he has been trapped in a precarious situation where there appears to be a lack of racially and religiously diverse voices in the leadership of our multiracial society.

In an email interview with Sunday Star, the 52-year old Dr Wee talks about his ministry work and MCA, politics of the country and the next general election (GE15). Below are excerpts:

Dr Wee briefing the King on the latest developments and progress in transportation projects in Malaysia.Dr Wee briefing the King on the latest developments and progress in transportation projects in Malaysia.

> Early last year when I interviewed you, you were in the Opposition. Soon after, you were invited to join the new government. How has this journey been for you?

We joined the new government at a time when there was a political crisis, after the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan coalition government. At the same time, Covid-19 hit. There was no clear plan of action to tackle this unprecedented health crisis until the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government of Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin came into being.

In less than a month upon being appointed as Transport Minister, the Cabinet was thrusted into the urgent responsibility to implement the initial Movement Control Order on March 18,2020, to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was a challenging time. We had to convince the rakyat that the PN government was a better choice in safeguarding the rakyat’s health, well-being and the nation. I am glad that my party MCA, its leaders and members and myself, have risen to the occasion.

> You are acknowledged to be a ‘performing Transport Minister’. Which are your most notable achievements?

In my first 100 days as Transport Minister, my accomplishments include the following:

a) Amending the Road Transport Act 1987 (Act 333) to impose heavier penalties for driving recklessly/dangerously or under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

b) Addressing the Covid-19 pandemic:

1. Giving one-off cash aid for 34,314 taxi drivers, 68,103 e-hailing drivers and 35,000 school bus drivers.

2. Introducing MY30, an unlimited 30-day travel pass, to benefit passengers of public transport in the Klang Valley. This is still valid in 2021.

3. Granting special exemption on driving licence renewal during the first MCO to avoid congestion at JPJ service counters.

4. Abolishing 20% import duty and 10% sales tax on facemasks to overcome the initial problem of facemask shortages.

5. Liasing with companies in China on behalf of the Cabinet to bring in essential healthcare items from China such as facemasks, ICU beds, ventilators and PPEs.

6. Ordering port-clearing exercises to allow both essential and non-essential goods to move to their necessary destinations.

7. Ensuring commercial vehicles will not be restricted from movement during the MCO.

> What about after 100 days as Transport Minister?

I acted on unresolved issues in the transport sector.

I changed the cabotage policy on foreign vessels by revoking a cabotage exemption for foreign-flagged vessels to undertake submarine fibre optic cable repairs.

This move will encourage the reflagging of foreign vessels in Malaysia and allow for more Malaysia-based companies to reflag their vessels locally to undertake submarine cable repairs.

What were the reasons for revoking the exemption? It is to reduce foreign exchange outflows in the form of freight charges or vessel charter party and insurance. It can also reduce our dependency on foreign vessels.

The retiring of Penang ferry got me into head-on collision with the DAP leaders.

In several of my statements, I had to debunk the myths that Penang’s former Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was spreading that the Penang ferry service would be scrapped.

In actual fact, the idea of replacing the old ferries was introduced by the former PH government. The current PN government is only implementing this former policy decision.

The new waterbuses that are to replace the old ferry are more comfortable, cleaner and faster. It will take merely seven minutes for passengers to cross the channel.

The Federal Government has also agreed to give an old ferry for free to the Penang state government to be used as a tourist attraction.

I also acted decisively on the delayed Rapid Transit System (RTS) link, the construction of which will improve Johor Bahru-Singapore connectivity. The ground breaking on the Johor side was done in November last year.

This project is targeted to be operational in 2026, with a capacity to carry 10,000 passengers per hour per direction. It will alleviate the congestion in the world’s busiest causeway that sees over 300,000 people crossing per day on normal days.

> As the only Minister coming from Malaysia’s only Chinese party (MCA), what have you done for the Chinese community?

Within 100 days in office, the MCA successfully put the decades-long government allocation system for TAR University College (TAR UC) back. This means we have overturned the decision of former Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, who had refused funding for TAR UC when he was in government.

The PN Government supports the mission of TAR UC by issuing RM58mil directly to the institution’s administration through the Parliament-approved federal Budget and Higher Education Ministry. In so doing, it will prevent abuses and interference from politically-motivated individuals.

When Lim became the Finance Minister in 2018, he dismantled the systematic allocation mechanism for TAR UC’s operation expenditure, and instead channelled RM40mil to a trust fund. His allocation bypassed Parliament and Education Ministry, and violated the SOP (standard operating procedure) on government allocation.

In Budget 2021, upon our request for allocation for Chinese schools, the MCA secured RM74.07mil – RM24.07mil higher than the RM50mil for Chinese primary schools for 2020.

In Budget 2021, there were also allocations of RM177mil for the Chinese community: micro credit (RM90mil), new villages (RM84mil) and others (RM3mil). The amount given for Chinese SME micro credit is the same as the year before.

TAR UC is also given RM40mil in operating expenditure and RM2mil in development funds. In Budget 2020 tabled by Lim, TAR UC did not receive RM40mil in operation allocation.

The PN government has shown that it is very pro-business. We must note that 80% of SMEs are owned by Chinese and non-Bumiputeras.

And the RM15bil wage subsidy and RM10bil Special Relief Fund (SRF) under MCO would also benefit a lot of non-Bumiputera companies.

> There is now a worry about racism and religious extremism rising in the country. What have you and other non-Malay politicians done to stop this worrying trend?

While it must be acknowledged that under the current government, there are fewer ministers and deputy ministers of Chinese and Indian ethnicity, the consensus-building spirit and unity is no less significant, though the grievances and issues raised in Cabinet are not publicised frequently.

Having MCA and MIC in the government should be seen as not being a “Malay Muslim” government as alleged by some quarters.

We understand the importance of strengthening racial harmony and we openly discuss issues concerning all communities in the Cabinet in a mature manner.

Combating issues on racial tension is an ongoing process that requires show of great care, maturity and wisdom, and empathy.

We have been able to solve all issues that crop up through negotiations and cooperation including those raised by MCA and MIC. But these are not aired in public often.

You may want to recall that during the former PH government, ministers came out of Cabinet meetings making conflicting statements that had led to more confusion and anxiety.

> MCA has been criticised as being relatively quiet on speaking up on issues affecting Chinese education, racism and religion. What is your comment as MCA president?

MCA continues to champion many issues of public concern. These issues include Chinese education, and those related to racism, religion or policies affecting the Chinese business community.

Most recently, we have reacted to the cancellation of Thaipusam as a public holiday in Kedah by the Kedah PAS Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi. We have opposed this move and urged that the Thaipusam public holiday be reinstated.

On the party’s front, we have attempted to engage with Christian and other groups, but the MCO 2.0 means that our plans to meet them will have to be delayed slightly.

MCA may be a Chinese-based party, but our outreaches are colour-blind as epitomised by the recent floods that hit Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan and Melaka. Even for states held by the Opposition such as Selangor, our MCA Crisis Relief Squad together with MCA Youth and Wanita MCA have contributed supplies, helped in cleaning-up and post-flood reconstruction works.

Our services are non-discriminatory, but are needs-based. MCA’s Public Services and Complaints Department opens its doors to any member of the public who needs help - irrespective of race, religion or status.

Dr Wee handing some essential items to a flood victim, who is an expectant mother with four children, in Johor recently. Dr Wee handing some essential items to a flood victim, who is an expectant mother with four children, in Johor recently.

> All Chinese-based parties, including DAP and MCA, are talking about multiracialism. Which party can the Chinese community turn to when their interests are being undermined?

It goes without saying that MCA/BN, and now Perikatan Nasional, is the best choice.

The DAP has played on the emotions and sentiments of the Chinese community to stay strong. But when they were in power, they acted against the interests of ethnic minorities and those from lower income families. The assault by Lim Guan Eng on TAR UC by cutting off its matching grant from the government is an example.

Under PN, MCA secured the reinstatement of the government’s matching grant for TAR UC and RM58m allocation for operation expenditure.

During the MCO, I had appealed to the PM to address the need to help ailing SMEs. Within 10 days, the PM announced the Prihatin package for SME.

> If a general election is called after the Emergency, what kind of result can be expected? Can MCA survive this election (GE15)?

It is too early to speculate. Since the second wave of the Covid-19 and a general belief that the Sabah state election contributed to the Covid spike, I do not believe the public is in the mood for elections.

We have to wait and review the Covid-19 situation. If the curve can be flattened early, the Emergency can be lifted earlier.

What is more important now is to safeguard the health of our frontliners, citizens, expatriates, investors, visitors, migrant workers here and for our economy to be revitalised. For this, we need the cooperation of all.

It is my fervent hope that MCA can win seven to 10 seats in GE15 to bolster our representation in the coalition. It will be an uphill task but we are sincere in our efforts to serve the public.

On MCA candidates, there will be a thorough vetting process and the potential candidate will be evaluated on his integrity, multi-lingual ability, contributions to society and affinity to the rakyat.

MCA must focus on fielding fresh faces with integrity. We can expect to see more young dynamic people join our political struggle.

The Transport Minister's handling of various issues and major projects appears to have earned the respect of many Malaysians.The Transport Minister's handling of various issues and major projects appears to have earned the respect of many Malaysians.

> Many Chinese are disappointed that MCA did not leave the Barisan Nasional coalition, whose dominant member Umno continues to show no or little respect for MCA and MIC. What are your reasons for staying on in Barisan?

The Barisan spirit of consensus among its component parties still stands as a guiding principle. But it does not mean we cannot give dissenting views.

To strengthen the cooperation between the various races and to ensure there was no racial-based political inclination, the MCA Central Committee on March 17,2019, opted to remain in Barisan as MCA does not want to see a deeper ‘Malays versus non-Malays” trend.

Ultimately, the spirit of diversity and governing by consensus in the Barisan alliance is still the best way forward for Malaysia.

> Many in the Chinese community are hoping that all Chinese based political parties in East and West Malaysia, including the DAP and MCA, can form a political alliance to safeguard Chinese interest. Do you think this can be realised?

In an ideal situation, we are open to working together to serve the interests of the nation. However, in reality this is easier said than done, as DAP’s sole preoccupation is to kill the MCA.

MCA has always been working for all Malaysians, but if the DAP is not sharing this vision, the relationship is dead in the water.

While MCA politicians work hard and do not clamour for limelight, DAP is better at creating media sensationalism. However, we can see that at both the state government and federal government level, DAP has failed to shine. In the previous government, DAP had constantly stirred up differences with its Pakatan allies.

> Some political analysts have commented that Umno may work with DAP and PKR in GE15 and even form a government if they win. Do you think Umno will abandon MCA, given that MCA has only two parliamentary seats?

DAP had openly said they are open to working with Umno to form the Perak state government and forming a political pact with Umno under the new normal.

However, Umno has consistently asserted that it will not work with DAP that it has labelled as a chauvinist, racist party.

PKR’s Anwar Ibrahim claims he has a “formidable majority” and “convincing numbers.” He had met with the King. But up till now, the PN government has not collapsed.

> What is your assessment of the performance of the Muhyiddin government? When will political stability return?

It was the Pakatan coalition which was unstable and that had led to its self-collapse. It is still unstable with Mahathir and Anwar not getting along. And now Shafie wants to bring his Warisan party into the Peninsular.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin is under tremendous pressure to flatten the Covid-19 curve and to revive the economy. With the series of economic stimulus packages, he is doing a good job to alleviate the people’s hardship.

It is more crucial now for all to focus on containing the pandemic and bring the economy back to even keel, instead of non-stop politicking to bring down the current coalition government.

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