IN early February, 2006, I decided to wait at the KL International Airport for the arrival of Flight MH9042 from Mauritius. I had wanted to talk to some members of a delegation from the Selayang Municipal Council which included nine councillors, the president, the secretary and his wife, two officials and four businessmen who had contracts with the council.
They had been away on a week-long sojourn in South Africa and Mauritius on what was termed as an educational trip, which in Malaysia is often referred to as lawatan sambil belajar.
News of their departure had already made the news, and as if it was pre-arranged, many of them gave me the slip, but my former colleague, Maria J. Dass managed to corner one councillor – G. Kohilan Pillai, who later went on to be appointed senator and deputy foreign affairs minister.
He was brutally frank with his answer – they visited various cities in both countries, among others, to study how public toilets are maintained and kept clean.
Unknown to them, their itinerary was already in my pocket. Subsequently, I wrote outlining their programme and asked what they had learnt when they were out shopping and sight-seeing all the time. As usual, the silence was deafening.
I have been chided, albeit in jest by my good friend and retired politician, Lee Hwa Beng, for preventing members of the Selangor Public Accounts Committee from enjoying a belly dance performance in Egypt on our expense. Their intended vacation had to be abruptly cancelled after it was highlighted in this column.
Previously, I had exposed a group of Klang municipal councillors who had gone to South Africa and spent most of their time in Sun City. Joining them were their wives, some of whom who had discarded their headgear for the tables and machines at the casino.
It is not an obsession with these excursions but the issue of spending people's money on a holiday on the pretext of education can only be described as a deception and breach of the public's trust.
The "mother" of all these trips had been a delegation led by the former mentri besar, Dr Mohd Khir Toyo, to study the waterways in Holland and Austria with a view to "study ways to use the rivers in the state" to ease the congestion on our roads.
Now, there's a new contender to that title. Terengganu Mentri Besar Ahmad Said recently led a delegation of eight on a research trip to Antarctica to study "climate change".
The trip cost RM846,328.26 with an average cost of RM105,791 per person. One may argue that there's no shopping or entertainment in the snow, but there was a stopover in Chile.
Our ambassador in Santiago, Ganeson Sivagurunathan, joined the trip and I am sure he would have taken the liberty to show them the sights of that great city.
What did they learn from the trip? How have Malaysia and its people benefited? We are close to the Equator and what could they have learnt from a mass of snow on ice which can be applicable locally?
How do you expect the public to stay silent when the government does not practise what it preaches? It goes around (and spends millions in campaigns) asking us to tighten our belts and be prudent in our spending.
We have been asked to shop around for bargains and eat that leafy vegetable, (it's a dreaded word and not politically correct to mention it for which I may be accused of being a traitor to the nation) the prices of which have come down. Some people are able to buy chicken for RM1 but many of us do not have access to such privileges.
Many commute to work daily in ramshackle buses and trains packed like sardines. There are many who have no roof over their heads, sleeping in cardboard boxes under bridges and viaducts. Some live below the poverty line in squalid conditions.
The gallivanting on public funds is becoming routine. It has to stop. If anyone wants to travel or go on holiday using the "lawatan sambil belajar" tag, it is no longer acceptable. Perhaps, like many of us in the private sector, civil servants and politicians should justify any requirement for travel.
Let us look at curing the ills of our tropical country before venturing into climate change in the cold.
R. Nadeswaran understands he is perhaps shouting at a group of deaf and dumb people and hopes those who know sign language will help them with the messages. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org