Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Hello, Tan Sri Sanusi? Hisham speaking..."

Raja Petra Kamarudin

Hisham going to the ground to look at Ah Long problems

PUTRAJAYA: Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein wants to get to the root of the loan shark problem and will go to the streets on Monday in search for answers.

“I think it is time for me to go to the ground to look at this problem.

“I will visit the hotspots and find out more on this loan shark culture that so many people seem to be depending on and later become victims to.

“I want to meet whoever, be it Ah Long or victims - whoever I can catch first,” he told reporters yesterday.

The number of incidents in which defaulters were attacked and even kidnapped by loan sharks has been in the media limelight of late, and even got the attention of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who expressed shock at the level of cruelty inflicted on defaulters.

One of the more prominent cases involved three men who were rescued by police last month after being held captive for two months by loan sharks when they failed to settle their debts.

The victims, aged 25, 34 and 49, were abducted from Segambut, Semenyih and Gombak and held in a shoplot in Seri Kembangan after failing to settle debts of between RM1,500 and RM4,000 each. They were found chained by their necks and legs, and showed signs of having been beaten by their captors.

I must say the above news report sounds good. But that is all it is meant to be, to sound good. Okay, Sham will do an impressive walkabout. Of course, the walkabout will have to be with members of the media in tow. He will then issue a ‘powerful’ statement, which will probably be given 45 seconds airtime on RTM and TV3. It might even make the front pages of the newspapers the following day. But that will be about it.

When the Kampong Medan race riots erupted back in the early 2000s, Sham also ‘went to the ground’. He visited the University Hospital and spoke to one Indian boy who had lost an arm. Some Malays had chopped off his arm with parangs. The Indian boy related how he was lying on the ground in excruciating pain while a policeman just stood at a distant watching.

The Indian boy shouted for help and the policeman walked over to him. The boy pleaded to be sent to hospital. The policeman stepped on him and said, ”Pergi mampuslah kau Keling.” He then walked away and left the Indian boy to die. He did not die though. He spent a long time in hospital recuperating from his wounds minus an arm.

Sham ‘instructed’ the Ministry officers who were with him to ‘look into the matter’. However, the matter was never looked into and no one was ever brought to book even though the Indian boy was able to identify the policeman concerned.

So much for Sham ‘going to the ground’ to investigate the Kampong Medan tragedy and the role the police played in protecting the citizens from violence and racism. Assume this latest ‘going to the ground’ expedition to be as fruitless as the one he conducted soon after the Kampong Medan race riots.

I have written about the problem of Ah Longs a month or so ago. In that piece I mentioned that about 30 years or so ago the Malay Chamber of Commerce did a study to assess the impact of Ah Longs on small-scale Malay businesses. The study was done in the small fishing town of Dungun in Terengganu.

What we found out was that nearly every Malay petty trader and fisherman in Dungun borrowed money from Ah Longs. The rate of interest they paid was 4% a day. So, for every RM1,000 they borrowed, they had to pay RM40 per day.

Every day, the Ah Longs would send ‘runners’ to collect RM40 from the petty traders and fishermen for every RM1,000 they borrowed. That’s all they had to pay, RM40 per day for every RM1,000 borrowed. The runners were not interested in collecting the principal. They just wanted the interest. The petty traders and fishermen can go on owing on the principal as long as they paid the RM40 for every RM1,000 they borrowed.

This meant the petty traders and fishermen would continue owing the Ah Longs the money they borrowed for the rest of their lives. And the Ah Longs would in turn continue collecting the interest without touching the principal for the rest of their lives. It was like making a pact with the devil. The devil owned you until the day you die and long after you have entered your grave when your family would then have to take over your debt and would have to continue servicing the interest on the never-never.

This matter was brought to the government’s attention but nothing was done about it. And that was 30 years or so ago.

Tan Sri Sanusi Junid can relate a similar story that involved him even earlier, about 40 years or so ago. At that time he was with the Chartered Bank. And the story goes as follows.

Sanusi had tendered his resignation and his Mat Salleh boss called him and asked what it would take to get him to withdraw his resignation and stay with the bank. Sanusi replied that if they gave him a few million Ringgit (equivalent to hundreds of millions today) to lend to the Kedah farmers under a special loan scheme then he would probably stay with the bank.

What Sanusi had discovered was that nearly every Kedah farmer owed money to the Ah Longs and were paying an exorbitant rate of interest just like what the petty traders and fishermen in Dungun were subjected to. The interest came to about 100% per year, which is still comparatively lower than the Dungun rate of interest, which was more than 100% per month.

The Chartered Bank agreed and Sanusi arranged for his officers to go down to the padi fields on motorcycles to look for farmers to lend money to. Eventually, they managed to disburse the money to all the farmers and free them from the clutches of the Ah Long.

Sanusi did not make press statements saying that he was ‘going to the ground’. He just got the bank to agree to give him a few million Ringgit and then he sent his officers into the padi fields to search for farmers in debt. They then gave the farmers loans so that the Ah Longs could be paid off in full and the farmers could be free of the blood-sucking rate or interest.

I suggest Sham just contact Sanusi and get Tan Sri to agree to become an adviser to the government. Sanusi has been handling this problem while Sham was still not wearing any underwear, so he knows what to do. Then set aside RM500 million or so under a special loan scheme to help fishermen, farmers and petty traders escape from their debts. Just go buy off their debts from the Ah Longs.

Even if the government has to finally write-off some of this debt it would still be worth it. If we can spend RM300 million a year on the Terengganu Monsoon Cup and a further hundreds of millions on F1 racing, bicycle races, Merdeka Day celebrations, Prophet Muhammad’s birthday celebrations, and whatnot, what is wrong with writing off RM100 million a year on a more worthy cause?

Prophet Muhammad never asked us to celebrate his birthday. I am sure if we cancel Prophet Muhammad’s birthday celebrations and instead use the money to help fishermen, farmers and petty traders the Prophet would find that more pleasing. And if we also cancel the Merdeka Day celebrations and all those other extravaganzas which cost a lot of money but do not improve our lives one bit that would augur well for the country as well.

I am not a genius. But does it really take a genius to think of all these simple things? Stop the wastage. Just use the limited money we have for the right things. And, as I said, if you don’t know what to do then give Sanusi a ring and ask him what to do. You will be surprised to discover that there are a lot of good ideas in the head of that Tan Sri.

Oh, by the way, if you really want to go to the ground, then investigate the role the police are playing in not only giving the Ah Longs protection but in many cases acting as their runners as well.

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