Excerpts from Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong’s interview on how he got things moving to avert a national crisis when the movement control order (MCO) was imposed.
Q: Describe your introduction to the Transport Ministry
A: A week after my swearing in (on Mar 10), we were faced with movement control order (MCO) on Mar 18, or five days after my deputy and I turned up for work. There are more than 20 agencies under MOT, and I was about to get to know them. We had to quickly re-orientate ourselves (to get up to speed with Covid-19), especially in sorting out the logistics industry. How to ensure basic necessities can reach the people, things such as food and so on, without interruption, not just within the country, but also to our trading partners such as Singapore. To ensure the logistics chain was not interrupted, we had to ensure all stakeholders played their part, to work as normal, even as they faced Covid-19. We had to convince them, to assure them of safety - at that point, some way the virus is airborne and all kinds of views. We had to quickly get all stakeholders, and that was a huge challenge.
Secondly, our ports cannot stop operations. We had to allow them to continue to operate, container yards were emptied on time to prevent the interruption of export and imports. We made sure containers were shipped out of the yard, to make space for incoming containers, as well as for containers for exports to move out. Every five days, the yard was cleared. Our ports never closed, not even for a day. It was a bold decision. At first, everyone was worried.
On face masks for mass distribution, I recall we were taken aback by the pricing that ranged from 2.50 to RM3 each. We proposed to use the excess capacity from MASkargo and other aircraft that were grounded, and quickly made orders for 50 million masks (from China), another bold decision by the Prime Minister. With that, we then flooded the market with masks to suppress prices. At the same time, there were proposals to remove the import duty of 20% and sales tax of 10% to reduce prices further. Later, the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry fixed ceiling prices. If there were insufficient stock in the country, we could not have done that. The masks were then distributed by the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) to the people, and prices are now stable. We used air transport as some ships were not sailing, others were stuck by lockdowns at their destinations, and some will result in us having to wait for two weeks. In an emergency, we did something to help the country.
Q: Describe the state of public transport during the Covid-19 outbreak
A: Aviation was the hardest hit, suffering from a passenger load of only 3% for domestic flights at the height of things, while international flights sank to less than 2%. But we cannot stop all flights, as that would be no more connectivity with Sabah and Sarawak. On the e-hailing, we also received many complaints from drivers after business declined by 70 to 90%, and tried our best so that services can go on as usual. MOT worked with the Health Ministry to come up with SOPs. Covid-19 also led many people to opt for delivery services, or what we call p-hailing services. MOT has been entrusted to regulate p-hailing, where we issued SOPs to ensure the safety of operators, riders and consumers by ensuring goods are sent out according to SOPs. There were all kinds of stories going around, such as about infected delivery riders and so on. Some riders were also scared to deliver. We brought stakeholders together to sort things out. Rail also suffered as passenger load plunged to 5%. We had to ensure regular disinfection was carried out, even if the operators are suffering from losses. And of course, MOT also helped distribute masks to public transport frontliners.
Q: Any updates on combating driving under the influence (DUI)?
A: During my visit to the (Bukit Bintang) MRT on May 4, I received news on a drink driving incident that day. I directed the Road Transport Department (JPJ) to expedite the revision of Sections 41 to 45 of Road Transport Act 1987 (also known as Act 333). Since then, the nation has seen a few other incidences of drink driving within the month. On June 1, we at the ministry level finalised all the amendments related to DUI, including for reckless driving. and have sent them to the Attorney-General's Chambers. We have done a rather comprehensive online survey on drink driving recently involving 345,021 respondents. The survey found that 11% said they have had experience with drink driving, whether as a witness (or being involved personally). Three per cent of the respondents claimed they did not know it (drink driving) was an offence, and 65% did not know about blood alcohol content (BAC) limits under Act 333. Overall, 94% agreed to increased penalties for DUI in terms of fines, jail terms, and suspension or revocation of the right to drive. We are serious in combating this menace. We are not trampling on the rights of anyone to drink, but please don't drive after that.
This is less than 40 days after the first incident), and I will make it my main agenda. I have met with various stakeholders like JPJ and the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros) to come up with a comprehensive plan that is beyond mere (heightened) enforcement. Education is not just MOT's or the Minister's responsibility alone, all have to play their part. On the proposed tightening of BAC limits for drink driving, I will give more details in future.
(Note: Malaysia is currently using 0.08% as the limit, while WHO recommends 0.05%, or 0.05g of alcohol for every 100ml of blood).
Q: There were allegations that some "cronies" were appointed by the Ministry to helm top positions in the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM). Could you respond?
(Background: Dr Wee appointed former Public Service Department director-general Datuk Mohd Khairul Adib Abd Rahman as CAAM chairman, and Capt Chester Voo Chee Soon as CEO, effective June 1)
The previous CAAM CEO (Ahmad Nizar Zolfakar) quit last November), and the CEO's position is a critical one that needs to be filled, and more so when CAAM has been downgraded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from a Tier One to Tier Two regulator last November. The downgrade also affects the image of our aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul industry. If we cannot recover our status, this will have long term repercussions. Some countries that were downgraded to Tier Two found that they could not regain their former status even after a decade, so this is not something to be taken lightly. When I became minister, I perused the meeting minutes of the CAAM board, which listed several candidates for the CEO position, including Capt Voo (credentials include 12 years with AirAsia, serving as flight operations director, backed by 17,000 hours of flight time).
I met up with nearly all former CAAM DGs, including Tan Sri Zaini Omar, Ahmad Nizar, Datuk Seri Azharuddin Abd Rahman, and Datuk Kok Soo Chon, to obtain their views, and I interviewed all the seven CEO candidates - none of whom I knew personally then.
As for the chairman's position, Datuk Adib is the former secretary-general at the Transport Ministry (since Jan 2019, other than being the former the deputy sec-gen at the same ministry). As former sec-gen, he is familiar with the issues affecting the aviation industry. It is critical for us to regain Tier One status. On top of this, we will be subject to another audit by the International Civil Aviation Organization within 1.5 years. If we fail, there will be severe repercussions,
I want to do what is best for the country, and I hope this puts to rest undue speculations on their appointments.
(note: The former CAAM chairman, Capt Ahmad Ridzwan Mohd Salleh, lasted from last October until this May, when his contract was terminated)
Q: What is the status of rail projects?
A: All approved projects will go on. For example, Sections A and B of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) will proceed. Section A covers 210km from Kota Baru to Dungun (some land acquisition matters need to be settled), and Section B is 223km from Dungun to Mentakab, is 16.45% complete. Section C, from Mentakab to Port Klang, still needs some refinement as it is a new alignment that needs approval. As for overall progress, we are not too far off the mark, being 0.02% off due to the MCO. The Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail comes under the Economic Affairs Minister, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali. As for the Johor Baru-Woodlands RTS, we are still ironing out some technical issues, recognising the deadline is July 31.
(Background: The Supplemental Agreement to suspend the RTS Link from Apr 1 to Sept 30,2019, was signed by former Transport Minister Anthony Loke and his Singapore counterpart on May 21,2019).
Q: What about the status of mandatory child seats?
A: The child seat policy will continue, and not be revoked. That said, in Malaysia, many things need to go back to basics, for example, when we speak of road safety, Actually, if you want to solve all the issues, it is back to 3Es - engineering solutions, education, and enforcement, Just taking one E will cause an imbalance. For example, if it is just enforcement, it won't be sustainable. Education is very important. If we look at the compliance to the wearing of rear safety belts, it is rather low.
If you cannot address this, and you impose the child seat requirements, there will be push back from the people, who wonder whether the Government is looking to increase revenue from fines. It is when children seated in the rear tell adults to belt up, then we will be considered successful. It is not that child seats are not important, they just need to be implemented concurrently with other measures. The matter cannot be viewed as an absolute. We also don't want cheap but substandard products in the market. Child seats will remain, but we will tweak our approach to foster adoption on a sustainable basis. It does not matter whether it is a Pakatan Harapan policy or otherwise, we adopt what is good, and reject what is bad. We have to be objective. On the National Transport Policy 2019-2030, there is some good content in there. We are reviewing the document, and we are not the kind who throws away legacy. There must be continuity, and whatever that is good will be retained.
Q: How about the general state of enforcement?
A: I get a lot of appeals from the people. For example, there are about 300,000 persons who cannot get their driving licenses renewed because of outstanding summonses. Some want to be p-hailing riders, but find that they are blacklisted. In this difficult climate, we have to find a solution such as in the form of discounted summons payments. JPJ, which rarely gives discounts, will have to have more meet-the-people sessions to understand their problems as these can solve many things. On another matter, during the MCO, there were many with expired road tax. On Mar 23, I used my powers to grant a waiver for road tax renewals as long as the vehicle has a valid insurance. This is to prevent people from rushing to JPJ counters and risk infections. In regard to this, JPJ needs to introduce more digitalisation so that more people need not perform over the counter services.
I have talked with senior JPJ officials on the need to have a paradigm shift away from many processes that are reliant on manual input, to processes that are more automated. JPJ has been seen as an agency that is full of challenges over the years, and there is need to reduce contact between officials and the public when it comes to transactions. My stand is that integrity must be prioritised, and that all enforcement officers will be monitored. Even though the (current) director-general of JPJ hails from the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission, there are still challenges.
Q: How do you cope with the MCO?
A: I am in office practically every day, including weekends, to read all reports and publications. I pledge to do my utmost for public transport in Malaysia. That said MOT is a rather complicated ministry, with its decisions often cutting both ways (or more, as per the proverb ditelan mati mak, diluah mati bapak).
For example, when social distancing was introduced for public transport (subsequently loosened as of June 11), operators ask who will bear their losses (note: Malaysia regulates only train, bus (but not school buses) and taxi fares). We could only appeal. I really pity the school bus operators who come to my office crying when they only have a few clients. For trains, if we follow the one metre recommendation, the capacity will drop to only 20%. When the My30 travel pass is unveiled (on June 15)), more people will want to use public transport. And when demand goes up, disinfection requirements will go up as well. Likewise, aircraft passenger capacity will drop to 20% if distancing measures are imposed, resulting in higher fares. As far as air fares are concerned, we could only appeal to them to keep things affordable as we cannot interfere in air fare (setting). All these are examples of how MOT has to balance various interests. When we do social distancing, we get applause from some, but others get mad at us when they are faced with higher air fares. We have to look at things holistically, to consider all interests.
On the 20-plus agencies under MOT, I dare not say I have fully understood all of them. For example, how many are aware of the number of departments/units within JPJ, which collects RM4.4bil a year? And why we have to use portable weighbridges instead of just fixed weighbridges (to check vehicle overloading). Currently, I know more than most, but won't say I have mastered them all. For example, can the Land Public Transport Agency (Apad) cope with more challenges, with 900 staff during its time as a Commission - SPAD) to 300 now? MOT is full of challenges, and I learned a lot, tested my memory, such as knowing the difference between a state port and a federal port, as well as between logistics and land transport.
I speak to a lot of people, including retirees, as they know the system well and can give a quick summary of things. We have experienced officers and subject matter experts, and I enjoy the process of learning here. The MCO period gave me time to read and learn as I have fewer visitors.
Q: It has been said that a developed country is not one where the poor drive cars, but one where the rich use public transport. Your thoughts?
A: We cannot have that philosophy in Malaysia at the moment. Here, car ownership and its attendant ownership costs are low, meaning even those in the rural areas can afford to buy cars. These families think it is the most affordable way to move about. In the more developed countries, the vehicle does not reflect a person's status, while convenience of using public transport is key. Plus, usage costs such as fuel, parking (along with congestion charges) can be steep there. However, when the LRT3 and MRT2 are complete, more city dwellers in Klang Valley will use public transport.