The bells toll for thee

"... AND therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

While John Donne, the English poet of yore, may have been speaking of death, I am pointedly speaking about tolls.

Facetious, perhaps, but I need to lighten the mood as I and many other Malaysians gird our loins to prepare for the inevitable hike in tolls.

The play on the word "tolls" is also meant to drive home the point that the tolls we part with daily to use roads that in my opinion the government should have underwritten indeed take a toll on many of us.

My imagination may be running on overdrive but do I hear bells pealing in the distance?

Malaysian history will record that fateful day when government decided to hand over its duty to build and maintain roads to the private sector for the simple reason that it could not afford to do so and that the latter could.

A decision taken in the best interests of the people really but one that did not take into consideration the long-term cost to the people.

It appears that the companies that make profits, described by some as obscene, from the tolls may be responsible for the grave looks that many wear as they drive away from toll booths.

What is more painful is news, true or apocryphal it is yet to be ascertained, that some of the companies that invested in highways have already recovered their investments.

Under contention right now is the fact that the government is finding itself locked into iron-clad contracts that it cannot negotiate itself out of.

Hence, the premise that the powers-that-be want motorists to digest is that little can be done to renegotiate such contracts even if the profits are handsome enough not to warrant another hike.

Some may be tempted to tell all those intending to raise rates, fares and the like to take a hike.

I fully understand their ire.

I know many who are wage-earners whose monthly salary does not increase to commensurate with sudden price increases precipitated by fuel prices that fuel increases in the price of vegetables, chap fun (Chinese pre-cooked food sold buffet style), sundry items available at the neighbourhood mom and pop store besides a whole range of items that the reader will realise I am talking about.

Power rates are going to go up in a matter of days as will assessment rates in Kuala Lumpur where someone who bought a house in the 1970s for about RM25,000 and whose property is rightly worth RM1.5 million or so today will have to pay much more in rates.

The prices of things in general in Malaysia can be compared to one's age: they just keep going up. There is no hope of prices taking a dip anytime.

Those at the helm in government and the private sector really don't know what they are talking about when they tell the man on the street to tighten his belt or take alternative roads if they don't want to pay higher tolls.

Many of them, to be fair, may have had humble beginnings but this may have been light years ago. Today, they most probably are driven around in swanky cars and do not know the difference in price between a kilo of kangkong and sawi.

My apologies to those who do but they are probably few and far between but I think I have made my point.

And the worst hit are the retired folk who take home a monthly sum from the government for the years of toil put in. The increase in pensions is often minuscule and nowhere in keeping with price increases.

There seems to be no respite for the older generation who have spent their years in the service of the nation only to be given the short end of the stick on retirement.

Even as this column goes to print, there is talk that the government may be convinced to reconsider the hike although no one come out to speak about it.

Of interest is the statement by Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim that the state government will put a roadblock on any effort to approve the hike for three highways through its representatives on the boards of the concessionaries.

He was realistic enough to state that this may not be enough to stop the hike as the last word will lie with the boards.

There is enough for them to chew on to make a decision that will be fair to all.

It is my considered view that a toll hike at this point in time will be ill-advised. I pray the powers-that-be will reconsider the impending increase in tolls for the general welfare of all.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Time was when Christmas was the time of the year when children and adults, Christians and non-Christians alike, had the time of their lives.

It did not matter if one was in Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Kota Baru.

For me, the yuletide season coupled with end-of-year festivities at shopping centres in the late 1950s and early 1960s led to me and my cohorts having a ball of a time with carols in the air, Christmas Fathers in costume at church parties and presents galore.

The season started early as it always does with the beginning of Advent when Christmas trees were brought out from musty store rooms to be decorated with lights (they invariably failed to work being made to last only for a season) and all manner of colourful balls, cotton, and other accessories.

Cakes were made, new clothes bought and Christmas cards sent out to all and sundry (it has become a lost art today).

In Brickfields where I grew up in a little concrete box at the Hundred Quarters, the first sign of Christmas was the lorry carrying bottles of aerated water doing its rounds in the neighbourhood.

Crates of delightful drinks including brands like Miranda, Sinalco, F&N and Green Spot, Vimto, were ordered well in advance and stacked at the back of the quarters to be served to visitors who stopped by until well into the new year.

An indicator that Christmas was the next day was the familiar sound of carollers in school buses singing their hearts out to homes in the wee hours of the morning.

Sometimes we used to meet the night soil carriers in municipal council lorries heading out to make collections (the flush toilet had yet to be introduced in many parts of KL) as we headed back to church to end the singing session.

Christmas Day itself was a time when a quaint tradition was adhered to by Christians as was the case with people of others faith at their respective religious festivals when tray of goodies including chicken and mutton curry and iddiyappam (string hoppers) or idly (steamed cakes) were sent out to neighbours.

The festivities extended into the first week of January when fathers and mothers mentioned the "s" word: that school would be opening soon.

It was time to put the Christmas tree back into storage for the next year, remove the Christmas curtains for use later and for school uniforms and shoes to be readied for the first day of the school term.

Things have certainly changed over the years. It seems the Christmas spirit only survives in shopping complexes where carols fill the air as eager shoppers of all races rush to get bargains at sales.

Few homes (and trees in the compound) are decorated with lights. The lantern-like star made out of paper that sometimes had candles or a lighted bulb within at the entrance to Christian homes is almost non-existent.

The only constant is that churches continue to be crowded on Christmas Day.

Here's wishing all a blessed Christmas and New Year. God bless all.

Balan Moses, executive editor (news), is worried that Malaysians may be inundated by price hikes all around in the new year. I believe we have done well on the global happiness index. But will price hikes keep us happy? I seriously doubt it. What do you think? Feedback: bmoses@thesundaily.com