I am just back from Singapore, where I took part in a forum on the Malaysian general election with some old friends.
The forum on Tuesday was organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in the island republic. I was delighted to meet my friend, Farish Noor, one of the organisers, and other friends on the same panel, namely Hermen Shastri of the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM) and Zaharom Nain of USM. Also on the same panel was Yang Razali, Senior Fellow at the School and Editor of the RSIS commentaries.
Farish, a prolific analyst and commentator, has just taken up a new position as Senior Fellow at RSIS and he seemed happy that his new job would allow him to travel and spend time on his research interests. He spoke on the Hindraf factor, Hermen touched on the Christian minorities’ concerns, Yang Razali on the possible election outcome scenarios, Zaharom on the mainstream media’s coverage heavily tilted in the ruling coalition’s favour. I zoomed in on the electoral battle in Penang, one of the “frontline” states.
On the way to Singapore, I had pored over the Singapore Straits Times and the Today paper and noticed that they had given wide coverage – page after page – to the Malaysian general election. Most of the Singapore media including those under Singapore MediaCorp and Channel News Asia have a string of correspondents covering the campaigning in Malaysia ahead of the polls. The coverage of Nomination Day proceedings was impressive, with the campaigns of both the BN and the opposition given lots of space. The key points of the BN’s and opposition parties’ manifestos were also listed.
I wondered to myself if Singapore’s opposition parties would receive fair media coverage in their own election campaigns. For one thing, I know that pictures of the massive crowds at opposition rallies in the last Singapore general election were largely not shown in the island republic’s press, as revealed in Singaporean activist Dana Lam’s excellent book “Days of Being Wild” (mainly reporting impressions of the opposition side of the Singapore election campaign that received little mainstream coverage).
Even though we had seen the prominent coverage of the Malaysian general election in the Singapore papers, the visiting Malaysian panel speakers including me were somewhat taken aback to see the Singapore media, including television stations, turning out in full force at the RSIS forum. All of us were deluged with journalists asking us for our contact details and requesting newspaper and television interviews, which we were happy to oblige. We each received a pile of call cards from the various journalists, who said they would be in touch with us.
As a Singaporean relative of mine told me, Malaysian politics is far more interesting, intriguing and entertaining than Singaporean politics, which by comparison is frankly, well, kinda dull and predictable…
One of the hot topics in Singapore now is inflation, which has reached the highest level for I-can’t-remember-how-many-years. Looks like Singapore and Malaysia still have a lot in common.
Before my arrival in Singapore, I had glanced through a full-page BN ad in theSun (25 February) titled “Proven: Stretching the Ringgit”. It showed a comparison table of the prices of flour, sugar, cooking oil and petrol in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Singapore (see table on left). Of course, the Malaysian prices were the lowest. But aren’t these all controlled items? Well, yes, because the ad also stated that RM43.5 billion was spent on subsidies “on essential items so that all Malaysians enjoy lower prices and have more money in their pockets”.
This appears to be an attempt to counter public concerns in Malaysia over the rising prices of essential food items such as staples, meat, fish, vegetable and fruit while preparing the ground for a future oil price hike. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat much sugar and flour(!) and I try to avoid food which has been cooked with a lot of oil. What about the prices of bread, fruit, fish and vegetables?
Over in Singapore, similar regional comparisons have been made to allay public concerns over price hikes. The Today newspaper (26 February) carried a report mentioning that the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) had done a comparison of food prices in Singapore with those in neighbouring countries. The paper noted that the MTI “has lately released more inflation-related data, such as a table on how food prices here (in Singapore) have not risen as much as in Malaysia, America or Hong Kong”.
Eh, food prices in Singapore have not risen as much as in Malaysia? Whom to believe? The BN or the Singapore MTI? But then again, the BN advert only showed the prices of controlled items such as sugar, cooking oil and flour…
What I would like to see in the mainstream media is some attempt to analyse why food prices are rising. Could it be due to:
- the destruction of vegetable farms to make way for development (so that most vegetables supplied in Penang for instance now have to come all the way from Cameron Highlands)?
- the shift to corporate agriculture and its emphasis on the cultivation of cash crops for export instead of essential food items to promote food security and self-sufficiency?
- higher oil prices leading to a rise in fuel, transport, fertiliser and pesticide costs, the increased use of which is the result of the shift away from traditional farming practices?
- the conversion of land for biofuel cultivation, which has reduced the availability of land for farming?
Instead of looking at these factors to explain the rising price of food, the media here act as if the problem is inevitable, when it could be partly due to the government’s own policies.
It is important for the opposition parties to study the factors leading to rising food prices and to suggest alternative farming, financial and economic policies that they would implement to keep food prices affordable if they come to power. (I know that is a big if – but still…) These policies could include promoting organic farming while curbing the use of harmful – and expensive – pesticides and encouraging the opening up of more vegetable farms and fruit orchards near urban centres (to cut down on transport costs). We can’t survive on microchips alone, you know…