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Fundraising walkathons for bailouts and fighter jets?

Most of us have done it while we were in school. You know, taking part in walkathons and donation drives to help the school build a new wing or to carry out urgent repairs. And we usually thought nothing of it and were glad to chip in.

But a friend of mine phoned this evening sounding upset that their child had been asked to take part in a school donation drive.

“No way is my child going from house to house to collect money for the school,” my friend told me. “I have written a letter to the school to tell them that my child is not to be involved in such fund-raising activities. And I told my daughter that if the teacher or the principal is unhappy, they should get in touch with me.”

“I mean, I am paying a lot in income tax; where is all that money going? Why should my child then go from house to house raising money for her (government) school?”

My friend has a point. After all the money the government has wasted on mega projects, our schools are still short of funds – especially schools in the interior areas and many of the Tamil vernacular schools.

But funny how we are never short of funds when it comes to buying the latest multi-million ringgit submarines or advanced fighter jets – or for the latest bailout. How many billions of ringgit have we spent on bailing out failed projects?. Now we have the fiasco over the Klang Port Free Zone – which is proving to be far from “free”. In fact, pretty expensive, if you ask me – a worthy contender for mega scandal of the year.

When was the last time you saw government officials going from house to house, cap in hand, trying to raise funds to buy a fighter jet or to bail out a failed mega project?

This is not a peculiarly Malaysian situation. Take Pakistan, for instance: it allocated US$4.2 billion on “defence” out of its US$21.7 billion federal budget compared to only 2 per cent of GDP on education.

And let’s not even talk about America. Listen to Robert Dreyfuss:

And it’s important to keep in mind that the official Pentagon budget doesn’t begin to tell the full story of American “defense” spending. In addition to the $650 billion that the Pentagon will get in 2008, huge additional sums will be spent on veterans care and interest on the national debt accumulated from previous DOD spending that ballooned the deficit. In all, those two accounts add $263 billion to the Pentagon budget, for a grand total of $913 billion.

Gulp! Nearly US$1 trillion on “defence”.

So I have a suggestion. Instead of donation drives for schools, why don’t we have walkathons to raise funds for the latest fighter jets and bailouts. I am sure the public would gladly chip in for such a good cause.

Look, a minimum wage would spur economic activity

Here’s more evidence to show that a minimum wage can actually keep the economy purring.

This time, we go to the United States.

San Francisco-based journalist, Dick Meister, a specialist on labour issues, is actually calling on the US administration to raise the minimum wage there to a more decent level. A minimum wage, far from dampening economic sentiment, could actually spur domestic demand and boost economic activity. Here’s what he has to say:

But what of that other bit of fiction spread by opponents, their flimsy argument that raising the minimum forces employers to eliminate jobs? Don’t you believe it.

Just the opposite has happened after each of the 19 previous times the minimum has been raised since it was initially set at 25 cents an hour in 1938. The job growth has been spurred primarily by the increased spending of those whose pay has been increased.

What’s more, the raises have benefited employers, since increasing workers’ pay raises their morale and, with it, their productivity, while decreasing absenteeism and recruiting and training costs.

Taxpayers would benefit, too, since so much of the billions paid out in public assistance goes to families whose working members do not earn enough at the current minimum wage to be self-supporting.

So isn’t that reason enough for Malaysia to introduce a minimum wage? After 50 years of Merdeka and 44 years of Malaysia, do you seriously think our nation as a whole stands to gain by paying poverty-line wages to hundreds of thousands of long-suffering workers?

Oil running out – and Malaysia allows an energy-intensive smelter

The oil is running out.

Yes, in Malaysia too.

By 2010, we will become a net importer of oil. If our domestic demand for petroleum products continues to increase by 4 per cent annually, we will have nothing left over to export as demand will exceed domestic crude oil production.

Many countries around the world are beginning to feel the energy squeeze. As Peak Oil – the slowdown in oil production, which is incapable of meeting rising demand – sets in, the price of oil will soar. The resulting energy squeeze has already hit dozens of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Jeroen van der Veer, the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, has just laid out the “Three hard truths about the world’s energy crisis” and it is sobering food for thought:

  • The first hard truth is that demand is accelerating.
  • The second hard truth is that the growth rate of supplies of “easy oil,” conventional oil and natural gas that are relatively easy to extract, will struggle to keep up with demand.
  • The third hard truth is that increased use of coal will cause higher carbon dioxide emissions possibly to levels we deem unacceptable.

So what do we do? We blow our precious hydro-electric resources on an energy-intensive, polluting (yeah, yeah, it is supposed to be green technology) smelter in Sarawak – a RM7 billion joint venture between Rio Tinto and Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS) – and we all know whom the latter is linked to. (Check out the environmental protests against Rio Tinto’s smelter in Iceland here.)

This smelter will soak up all that surplus electricity from the 2,400MW Bakun Dam, whose power we don’t really need at the moment. Whether the Bakun Dam is really capable of delivering the 2,400MW in electricity is another issue – given that the designated catchment area has been badly degraded through logging and conversion to plantations. (Check out the latest Aliran Monthly for more info on the degradation of the catchment area.)

And what has happened to those grand plans to transmit electricity to the peninsula via submarine cables?

Planning for the Bakun Dam itself has been an unmitigated disaster. The project has been plagued by numerous delays, the scandalous relocation of indigenous people, cost over-runs and now uncertainty over what to do with all that surplus electricity if – and that is a big IF – the dam can really deliver 2,400MW. Ever since they took over the ancestral lands of the indigenous people, you could say the project has been jinxed.

Sime Darby is the lead project manager of the Bakun Dam. It is also one of the key parties involved in the Northern Corridor Economic Region project – and let’s not forget its usual business of managing massive oil palm plantations. Isn’t that a wee bit of an overstretch? And we know what happens when a corporation over-extends itself, don’t we. Last time I checked, Sime Darby hasn’t had a very happy record venturing into non-core activities (think Sime Bank).

The smelter firms no doubt are looking for “cheap, cheap” electricity – but at the electricity tariff rates they desire, can we ever recover the billions of ringgit poured into the bottomless pit known as the Bakun Dam?

Who will take responsibility for this?

What if Jesus had lived in Latin America?

I came across this interesting power-point presentation of the Stations of the Cross by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Argentina, and I thought I would share it with you. What is different about these Stations is that the scenes of the Passion are actually contextualised to reflect current day realities.

This particular presentation is set in Latin America with commentary by Alastair McIntosh, a writer, lecturer, social activist, broadcaster and campaigning academic based in Scotland. It is based upon, and builds on, original text from CIDSE agencies (Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité) that distributed the images.

Download the powerpoint presentation here. Amazing how this 2,000-year-old Gospel event can jump to life when set against a backdrop of current day socio-economic realities.

Religious leaders overcome odds to affirm right to water

It’s not often that religious leaders come together to take a common stand on an issue of national significance.

Over the years, Aliran organised a couple of seminars – one on corruption and the other on the human being – that looked at these issues from the perspective of the various spiritual traditions.

In recent times, we have seen religious leaders coming together to protest against the invasion of Iraq and, last weekend, to reaffirm the right to water in an interfaith seminar. But this time, the plan by various religious and civil society groups to hold the event at the National Mosque was scuttled at the last moment.

Obviously, some quarters are uncomfortable with the idea of Muslims and non-Muslims putting aside their differences and coming together to take a common stand on an important public interest issue especially at such a prominent landmark as the National Mosque.

In this piece for IPS, I looked at the run-up to the seminar and the last-minute change in venue.

When religious leaders from different faiths sought to jointly affirm the sacredness of wateron scuttle interfaith harmony as well as support plans to privatise a common resource.

Plans to hold the highly symbolic interfaith forum on the right to water at the National Mosque, a major landmark in the capital Kuala Lumpur, on Saturday had to be scuttled when the organisers were suddenly forced to shift the venue to a location five km way.

But, the last-minute change did not stop prominent leaders of the Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh faiths from signing a landmark joint declaration on water and affirm that the element is a sacred gift bestowed by the creator to people to be conserved and used to fulfil the basic needs of all living things on earth. Full article: Water a sacred gift, affirm interfaith leaders