Thursday, June 19, 2008

Malaysians demand cheap fuel back

Malaysians demand cheap fuel back

By Robin Brant
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Malaysians protest the sudden fuel price hike in Kuala Lumpur on 13 June

The soaring price of fuel around the world has brought protesters out in many countries.

This includes Malaysia, where the government recently announced a 40% jump in the price of petrol.

Angry opposition groups are calling on a million people to descend on the capital Kuala Lumpur for a demonstration next month.

Outside a mosque in the heart of Kuala Lumpur recently, a handful of protesters gathered with home-made placards. One man chanted, while others around him applauded.

They want their cheap petrol back.

Overnight rise

Malaysia had some of the cheapest petrol in Asia - the equivalent of about US$0.65 (£0.33) a litre.

But as the oil price rose, the government realised that its subsidy for 2008 could add up to a third of the total budget. So it cut it, overnight.

"Normally the increase will be around 5% to 10%, it's normal. But 41% is not normal," said Mustapa Masoul, a welfare campaigner who organised the small demonstration.

"We will protest and we will arrange another protest every week as long as they still put the same price and they don't want to negotiate," he said.

His demand is simple: "Put the price back to normal, as before."

The price jump was unprecedented. It had been expected for months but when it came, with just six hours warning, it hurt.

Buses disdained

The message from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is that the era of cheap petrol is over. He said big subsidies can no longer be justified.

Petrol pump in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The more roads we build, the more cars we get... Because we had an automotive industry, we had to promote cars, and roads were easy to build
Shahrir Abdul Samad
Domestic trade minister

So a public transport boom is on the way then? No, is the answer - far from it.

"A car is still important," said Shareen, an advertising creative, after filling up at a petrol station.

"It's a necessary thing. To change from a car to a bus? I don't think so, because the bus and train are not that convenient now."

His boss pays for Shareen's petrol, but not at the new higher price. So he has to contribute, and he is cutting back.

Not on his driving, however, but on entertainment. No more going out.

Under the bridge at Bangsar train station at 0815 on a weekday is a perfect place to get a snapshot of the culture of getting around in Kuala Lumpur.

On this particular morning, the six lanes of traffic were all crowded with cars and the ubiquitous mopeds.

Buses went past, but most were half empty. Only once in half an hour came one where passengers were forced to stand because all the seats were taken.

On the other side of road is a railway track, but the trains were infrequent and slow.

Economic growth

The car is king in Malaysia.

The country has enjoyed huge economic growth, much of it fuelled by oil reserves off the east coast. Cars are a very important status symbol.

Malaysians protest against the rising price of fuel in Kuala Lumpur on 6 June
Protesters vow to speak out until their demands are met

That makes Mervyn de Sarah a rarity.

He gets the bus to work most mornings. He does not have a car. He could have one, provided by the company he works for, but he turned it down.

Sitting at a bus stop, he said that public transport needed to improve.

"You can see there's quite a number of buses that go to Sentral [a train station on the outskirts of the city], but don't go into the heart of Kuala Lumpur."

There is public transport but it is not joined up.

The government needs more people in Malaysia to think like Mervyn. But the car is ingrained in people's brains as the only way to get around.

Malaysia's Domestic Trade Minister, Shahrir Abdul Samad, admitted things are going to have to change.

"This has always been the problem," he said.

"The more roads we build, the more cars we get. That has been because we had an automotive industry, we had to promote cars, and roads were easy to build."

"The neglect on the public transportation side has now to be addressed," he added.

The government has promised more buses and better trains. It is offering cash rebates to soften the blow of the increase in fuel prices.

But the signs are not good. United Nations figures released late last year show Malaysia had the highest rate of growth in carbon emissions in the world: emissions are up 221% since 1990.

People here are willing to sacrifice a lot of other things before they have to cut back on their petrol.

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