Monday, January 07, 2008

Much Ado About Cooking Oil

There is a Shakespearean tangent to emphasise here, the 'much ado about nothing'-ness around the cooking oil saga.

The hero of the hour on the cooking oil crisis, just as for the salt crisis, should be Datuk Shafie Apdal, the of late oft embattled Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister. Here is the man in charge of not simply the to-and-fro-ing of local trade affairs, but also key 'vote-sensitive' items, such as the price control policy for food items.

The price control policy around food items is not just a key vote winner/loser because we 'holier than thou' Malaysians wish to keep food costs low for the lower income earners. It is important because we Malaysians are a nation of eaters! Yes, that's right, we may be of different races, religions and socio-political backgrounds. We may be nationalists, liberalist, religionist, socialist and dare I say some still communist. But transcending all this, WE MALAYSIANS MUST HAVE OUR FOOD!

Now food is not just a simple necessity for us to live. I mean, what's the point of living if there is no good food around! Malaysian students from various countries in Europe, Oceania, the Middle East, the Americas, don't often discuss their academic results when they call home, but MUST asssure their mothers that they are not suffering too much from the lack of good and proper tasting Malaysian food... and that the microwaved corn-dog they are eating is OK....

So when Datuk Shafie Apdal heard about the cooking oil 'shortage', one would expect him to react as any Malaysian would - he probably panicked! And this so soon after the salt crisis! One can just imagine the concerns popping into his head:
  • Oh god, what will my wife say! We had a tiff already when I couldn't get her salt the last time!
  • Does this mean we will have to cancel our kenduri this weekend? Oh my god, will the hotels have to start cancelling wedding functions?
  • Aiya, do I dare even have lunch at the 'Maple' later? I may be pestered by the 'Kuey Teow Special' guy...
  • Man, will they still keep me after the elections... Chinese New Year's coming... Chinese votes!

Seized with the horror of this last thought, Shafie decided he had to inform the PM. He was lucky, Pak Lah was in the office and had just had his nap... he was at his best! Pak Lah probably had a quick response for Datuk Shafie as he happened to have a whole floor of Oxbridge and other young graduate types to refer to for solutions and he reassured Shafie...

  • This was a good thing, as it would stop people actively being Holier Than Thou about Chua Soi Lek.
  • Shafie's ministry should confirm whether this cooking oil 'shortage' is real or just a rumour.
  • Shafie should immediately suggest measures - it seems a PPE graduate from Oxford recalled rationing as a good measure to manage shortages of goods by Winston Churchill's cabinet during World War II. As this idea was recalled by an Oxford 1/3 economist, Pak Lah suggests Shafie apply this measure.
  • In the meantime, the PM recalled a meeting the next day to discuss Palm Oil Industry where Shafie is involved. As in Pak Lah's mind Palm Oil and Cooking Oil is about the same, he thought it a perfect occassion to discuss and resolve the crisis. Peter Chin, Primary Industries Minister, he is sure would understand that this was a national crisis!
  • Some Machiavelli on the 4th floor then suggests that the DPM be 'tested' with this issue too... but by this time, Shafie had signed off...

Shafie was much calmed by the call and was able to think critically for the first time. He thought it was a little difficult to implement this rationing thing as he doesn't really know how to enforce it! However, it now has the PM's endorsement, so he'll carry on with it anyway to keep Pak Lah happy. He then called up his ministry's chief secretary (KSU) to begin 'confirming' this rumour...

Meanwhile, at Tescoes Hypermart Taman Tin Doc Mail, the floor manager on duty was puzzling over why consumers, led by an earlier hoard of workers wearing the uniform of a GLC where a young family member of Pak Tam's worked (see, were buying cooking oil as if it were petrol the day before a fuel subsidy cut. He was about to call his wife when he received a call from someone in the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry, asking him whether he was suffering from a 'shortage' in cooking oil.

Now, this floor manager was a good company man. So, after finishing his 1/2 hour gossip with the ministry official, where he learned more about this 'shortage', he then calmly called HQ and informed them of 'intel' from the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry of a cooking oil shortage, confirmed by strange behaviour of a hoard of staff from a Palm Oil related GLC! Being a good hubby, he then called his wife, who happened to be floor manager at Gigantic Hypermart...

By the end of the day, Shafie was ready and confidently declared to the media that 'rationing' of cooking oil will be the 'temporary solution', until supplies of cooking oil are brought in.

Seeing all this in the news, Pak Ya, a retired civil servant, decided to have some fun. He and his wife went down to Tescoes to enjoy the show. There he saw scenes never before seen in Malaysian retail. Cooking oil was whizzing off the shelves. Not only Palm Oil based stuff, but Sunflower, Canola, even the hydrib lo-cal Palm Oil and premium grade Olive Oil stuff! At the counters, fathers and mothers were coordinating their children to queue in separate checkout lanes with 5kg of cooking oil each.

Pak Ya then encountered a fellow retiree, Pak Bakaq. They laughed about the whole thing for a while then spoke to a young reporter, showing off their wisdom by declaring 'there is no shortage', 'people are panicking for no reason' and 'government should just allow market forces to play its role'. Pak Ya and wife then chose to join the fun themselves, queueing in separate lanes and buying 5kg of cooking oil each...

In the meantime, Pak Lah has chosen to announce that he is taking the lead by discussing the 'shortage' at the Palm Oil Industry cabinet meeting. Unfortunately, Pak Lah's boys have not been coordinating things with the DPM Najib's office (why would they?), otherwise, they might have known that Najib had discovered and was announcing his by far more accurate finding that there was no shortage of cooking oil! As a concession to his cabinet colleagues, he had rather fortunately tried to slant his announcement so as not to be too contradictory!

Not surprising really that Najib's office got it more accurately, as his people included a larger number of experienced people, closer to Pak Ya's age, whom he would consult on such matters. Clearly 35+ years of experience in addition to a full UM Econs degree trumps a 5 yr Oxford PPE grad most days of the week.

Anyway, the saga continues to play out with an announcement by Shafie Apdal that the government would now 'flood' the market with cooking oil to resolve the issue (announced after the Palm Oil Industry cabinet meeting). Wow... so was the government hoarding all the cooking oil all this time? No, they just needed to give the proper incentive to the producers I imagine. So, there never really was a shortage of cooking oil then...

Fortunately for the government, as is usually the case in this country as it is in this story, the Malaysian opposition is... nowhere...


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