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in a hurry
3:10pm, Mon: His new office in Jalan Kelang Lama, Kulim is in bits and pieces. There are no curtains to shield the sunlight piercing through two large windows. Only one set of air-conditioner is working and there are a few chairs scattered about.
Only two months in office and Barisan Alternatif's State Assemblyman for Lunas (Kedah), Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, seemed in a hurry to get things done.
He has just got back from his routine visit to one of Lunas' most frequent flood sites, Kampung Paya Serdang and Kampung Bukit Sarang Ayam after a plane ride from Subang airport. He had attended the second “100,000 People's Gathering” hosted by Keadilan in Panglima Garang Klang last Saturday. After a two-day working visit in Kuala Lumpur, he is back to his constituency which he said "needed him more".
One can tell from his demeanour he was not very pleased about his most recent constituency visit.
"These areas flood seven to eight times a year!" he lamented, referring to the two villages he had just visited. "The kampung folks tell me this has been going on for 20 years!"
He had gone there with his entourage to distribute rice, milk and sugar to help the affected ones see through the initial critical period. Half of that population, said Saifuddin, are Umno supporters.
"But the real problem here is that the rivers and drains are not able to accommodate such high volumes of water. We need to build walls or deepen the river's depth," he said.
"The authorities concerned seemed to be taking this matter very lightly. Twenty years!" he sighed.
BA’s 10-year masterplan
He invited me over to an empty work desk and opened a very thick and large book. He flipped through pages of colorful maps, pie charts, histograms and tables. It is a blueprint, a development programme of various departments such as agriculture, infrastructure, river and irrigation system, water supply and electricity, education, social and welfare, multi-racial and multi-religious projects for Lunas.
"This is our 10-year masterplan for Lunas," he said. "With this, BA hopes to translate its dreams into reality."
He atrributed this masterplan’s potential to the inputs by many professionals in the BA.
Saifuddin said his modus operandi as State Assemblyman here was not only to hear, receive or act on complaints but to be pro-active, to mingle with the grassroots and get people involved in the well-being of the state. To facilitate this, he and his family uprooted from their home in Alor Setar and now reside in Lunas.
He admits that he has not encountered any problems with government bureaucrats while carrying out his duties.
"Our rapport has been very good. I can walk into any government department and have meetings with the officers anytime. Our Umno counterpart has been very co-operative," said Saifuddin with a smile.
He wants to propose a shadow cabinet for Lunas. "Like the one we have in Petaling Jaya," he said. The function of the shadow cabinet will be to play a role of “check and balance” to ensure that the state does not spend more on administration but instead focus on projects that can benefit the people.
He said the plan was for the shadow cabinet to attend the District Council meetings because "they represent the rakyat, they are the taxpayers and we want to listen to what they have to say".
He added that people from all walks of life should attend the meeting and discuss their problems and get feedback from the officers concerned. There will also be sharing of ideas that lead to better understanding and improved quality of life.
He cited an example where rubbish collection had been privatised and lots of money had been poured into that area. He said that if local folks were disciplined and did their part like making sure rubbish is thrown into proper bins there will be no need to employ more rubbish collectors to do the job. The money can be spent on welfare projects instead.
"And that is one of my main concerns," said Saifuddin. "Since being in office, I have visited residential areas and kampung daily and find to my dismay not less than ten cases of families who need welfare aid."
He said he would request for more allocation of funds for senior citizens, single mothers and wives and children who have been abandoned by husbands and fathers. Presently, needy persons receive about RM50 to RM100 as financial aid from the welfare department, he said.
"The welfare department is doing a fine job but we cannot depend on bureaucratic data alone," he said.
"We need a new approach to these old problems. We'd like to encourage society to be more proactive towards its members. To be the 'eyes and ears' and complement the welfare department's role," he added.
During Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, Keadilan members who were business men and women had distributed financial aid to eight needy families as part of their "zakat perniagaan" (business tithes).
Barisan Alternatif wrested the Lunas state seat from Barisan Nasional when Saifuddin beat MIC's S Anthonysamy by 530 votes at a recent by-election. The by-election came about when BN's State Assemblyman for Lunas Joe Fernandez was shot dead. Lunas was a “meaningful” win for BA because the opposition front managed to deny the BN government a two-thirds majority in the state assembly.
Saifuddin was sworn in on time to attend the last day of the recent state assembly sitting in Kedah. He said he was fortunate enough to read the latest Auditor-General's report on Kedah's financial state of affairs.
"It is not a rosy picture. Kedah had incurred debts amounting to RM1.2billion due to overspending on various luxury projects,' he said.
"Kedah is presently surviving on capital grant and tax payer's money. There are no income generating projects to benefit the people.
Instead, there are ego boosting projects all in the name of tourism and the state is finding it hard to pay back its debts to the federal government on time," he added.
Saifuddin reported a summary of the luxury projects:
- Construction of a thousand steps "seribu kenari" to the peak of Gunung Jerai.Saifuddin said that other than the Public Library in Kedah, all other projects were unsatisfactory.
He said he did not object to development or turning Kedah into a tourism center but two pressing issues now at stake are the plight of padi farmers and the rakyat who have to pay more for water come 2020.
"Kedah has 63,000 padi farmers out of 123,000 nation-wide. We have the largest number of padi producers and yet their income is the lowest," said Saifuddin.
"Although productivity has increased by two percent, income has dropped because the national rice agency Bernas is more happy to import rice from Thailand and selling it here at a lower price," he added.
Saiffuddin claimed that Bernas has monopolised the output, buying and selling of rice in the country and as a result has oppressed padi farmers even more. By buying rice from neighbouring Thailand, Bernas would benefit from the low exchange rate. There was also no need to spend on subsidy for farmers there.
Water rate doubled
"Another striking issue here at stake is that our people have to pay twice the rate come the year 2020 because water supply has been privatised," said Saifuddin.
"Since former Menteri Besar Osman Maarof's time we have been paying 63 sen for 1,000 gallons of water but come 2020, we'll have to pay RM1.032 although infrastructure, pipeline and water treament plant will not be added. The question is why?" he added.
He said he was suspicious when the water agreement with Air Indah Utara was abruptly extended to 2020 last September when the contract only expires in year 2005.
He added that opposition leader and PAS president Fadzil Noor had moved a motion in Parliament to debate the matter several times but was rejected by the speaker.
Saifuddin said he is very concerned about the Auditor-General's report because it puts Kedah in a very bad light as far as finances are concerned, notwithdstanding the fact that both the Prime Minister and Finance Minister come from the state.
He complimented Kelantan's Mentri Besar Nik Aziz Nik Mat for having handled the state very well since 1990, when PAS took over from Barisan Nasional.
In his (Nik Aziz) second year, he was able to pay back the state's outstanding debts on scehdule. Development rate in Kelantan is about 3-4 percent and it has strong reserves, said Saifuddin.
"The Kelantan MB is more practical, although he is only a graduate in Islamic Law. He has developed the state agriculture potential and focused his projects more on developing the local people's business instead of spending on expensive projects to 'attract tourism'," he added.
He added in jest that present Mentri Besar Syed Razak Syed Zain, despite his expensive collection of books, need to read up on financial matters and how to develop Kedah's depleting financial reserves.
After a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Saifuddin, one gets the feeling that much is in store for the people of Lunas though the going may be tough.
"But we are determined to realise our plans to see Lunas develop into a very fine place to live in," he said, adding that he is happy he has a group of very dedicated staff to work with.
"We have a vision. If we package it
very well, Barisan Alternatif will reign in Kedah next time around,"
was Saiffudin's parting comment with an air of confidence.