Tuesday, November 22, 2011

NFC: No cow sense at all!

One of my father's favourite expressions is "use some cow sense!" which basically means "use your brain!". As a result, I found it highly appropriate for me to use in this article. It is remarkable to see how Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and her family utterly capitulated under the tirade of dirt dug up against them.

First we hear of the RM250 million National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) project awarded to the family of the Women, Family and Community Minister Shahrizat, who had no experience of breeding cows at all. Then there is a damning report from the Auditor General who reported that since 2010, the NFC has fallen short of its breeding target by 41%.

The public outcry was predictably loudest coming from the opposition, PKR in particular. They demanded to know how they got into this mess in the first place and proceeded to dig further. That is when they realised that they struck political gold and at the same time, opened a massive can of worms for the Barisan Nasional government.

Inexcusable scandals

PKR obviously wanted to dig deep for evidence of cronyism and fund misappropriation. It was simple logic. When so much money is dispensed for a project which the Auditor General (AG) declared to be "a mess", where did the money go actually? They followed the trail to Bangsar, and the purchase of a RM10 million condominium using NFC funds. Cue the beginning of the "Cowgate" scandal.

The deathly silence on the part of Shahrizat and family further compounded the feeling that this was tantamount to an admission of guilt. Naturally Sharizat crying out that she was victimised as the former head of Wanita Umno did not earn her many supporters, as it was clear that she was using the tactic as a scapegoat.

Umno Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin wading into the debate with another insanely far-fetched explanation that the purchase of the condominium was a good investment just did not help. But we have to ask, why did he get involved at all in the first place? What's in it for him?

For a man who is embroiled in controversy over "Kampung Buah Dada", you would have thought that he would have kept silent! Obviously, Khairy can take even more of a public bashing. Is this an act of self-sacrifice for the party? Only time will tell.

After this the second condominium unit surfaces. Where does it end?

The cover up

What was remarkable about this incident was that it turned into a bipartisan affair. BN backbencher Bung Mokhtar called for Shahrizat to hand in her resignation, which was met with a chorus of approval from the opposition MPs.

However, the cabinet members stepped up to the plate to say that it was not fair. Leading the defence of his cabinet colleague is Muhyiddin Yassin, who said that there was no need for her to step down as she was not directly involved with the NFC itself.

This should not come as a surprise to us, as BN are always so good at avoiding issues, passing blame around and use less popular members as scapegoats so they are able to continue plundering and pillaging. Only crooks protect other crooks. When all else fails, hire a lawyer.

The press conference

The belated press conference called by NFC director Dr Mohamad Salleh Ismail, who is also Sharizat's husband, created suspicion from the offset, when all alternative media and Chinese language press were barred from participating. Is it the inability to handle probing questions or fear of his words being twisted? Perhaps. Nevertheless the exclusion only worsens the

He explained to the BN friendly papers that the NFC was on track and that they need more time to deliver results. There were a couple of issues with the answers provided. The government target of 8,000 heads of cattle is not a breeding target but a slaughter target.

Although they did raise 8,016 heads of cattle, the issue the AG raised was that only 3,289 heads were delivered, which is well short of the target. The entire premise of the NFC project in the first place was to supply beef to the market. As a result, the Key Performance Indicator should obviously be the number slaughtered not raised.

Additionally, he tried to claim that they were receiving RM70,000 a month for the condominiums. When I asked a couple of developers and real estate agents, they scoffed at the possibility of being able to obtain such a high rental.

The income they get may be in the form of guaranteed yield over 2 or 3 years in which most developers offer as an incentive to purchase the property. However, this turns out to be no more than a glorified discount. Anyone who can pay RM70,000 a month would we well within their means to purchase their own property!

The logic of it all

After all of the articles in the online and print media about the scandal, I doubt I need to venture further into all of its sordid details. Wanita PKR has launched a national wide campaign to file police reports against five individuals considered to be instrumental to the epic failure of the NFC including the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Najib has been accused about lying to parliament, and Muhyiddin apparently does not see anything wrong with using public funds to purchase property.

However, let us take a look deeper into to the whole issue and the futility of it all. The question has to be asked as to why we needed the feedlot in the first place. The government would claim that it is to supply more halal beef into the Malaysian market. Nevertheless there are a couple of important questions that need to be asked:

1.     Farms in Western Australia already supplied beef which have received international halal certification to many countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia. However, Jakim has not approved this. Is Malaysia truly more Islamic than Saudi Arabia so as not to recognise the Halal certificate? If not, why are we unable to accept the beef?

2.     What is the point in importing Australian cows at great expense and import the feed as well? There is a massive difference in the quality of Australian beef and the so-called Gemas 'Gold' cattle, and I would presume that this is down to the massive change in climate and environment. Why short change the Malaysia public with sub-standard beef which costs more than 

3.     If this is an issue of sovereignty, why can’t the government just acquire a farm in Australia and send people from Malaysia to run it? The NFC ran losses of RM7 million in 2009 and RM11 million in 2010. This amount would have comfortably paid for the living and lifestyle expenses of the staff required, as last time I checked, cows pretty much take care of themselves.

4.     If this is an issue about slaughtering the cows according to Jakim’s standards, why not just import the cows and slaughter them locally to Jakim’s satisfaction? This would be far most cost effective than the current method as we still have to import cattle anyway!

5.     Was this project to stimulate the national economy or the agricultural sector? If so, why are local farmers not benefiting from this project instead of awarding this to a company with Ministerial connections that has never bred cattle before? 

Grab and run

What we are seeing now is nothing short of a day-light robbery. We can see the system is rotten to the core, with scandal after scandal surfacing. However, the NFC saga may be the straw that finally broke the camel's back.

It is clear that Najib is not interested in reforms but more interested in making cosmetic changes to policies just to retain power. His alphabet soup including the NRKAs, NEMs and the ETPs count for nothing if he allows his cabinet ministers to run wild with the nation's money, and gives his deputy license to display arrogance in telling off the public for not believing their version of the story.

With the MACC and the police silent about this, there is a definite reluctance in the air to probe this issue. The difficult questions are now being asked, and this is the greatest benefit of the strong Opposition we have today. It is clear that despite suffering the worse electoral defeat in history back in 2008, BN have not learnt a single thing. In fact they got worse, and expected to get away with it.

Pakatan Rakyat has a golden opportunity now to frame themselves as a credible government. Public sentiment and anger is high, and another season of protest votes may favour PR in the coming election. However, they must work hard and work fast. Malaysian politics is fickle and the landscape changes quickly. If they miss the boat now, it may be a long time for it to come around again.

An FMT Exclusive

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