By Kee Thuan Chye
21 November 2012
It’s unbelievable how lackadaisical the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) is in collecting loan payments. These, after all, constitute the rakyat’s money, and it is the responsibility of the corporation to be accountable for it. And yet its chief executive officer, Agos Cholan, can say, in an interview with Malaysiakini, that it tells its debtors to pay whatever they can.
Whatever they can! What kind of an attitude is that? Isn’t it encouraging defaulters?
Is PTPTN not concerned about getting back the money because the money belongs to others? Is it plainly incompetent? Is it poorly run? If so, it reflects badly on the government we have.
In fact, the least the Government could do now is crack the whip on the people heading PTPTN to ensure that they do their job well, and if they don’t, it should have them replaced.
After all, we are talking about huge sums of money being loaned out. As it is, the total amount stands at RM45.41 billion, and by the end of the year, it will reach RM50 billion.
That’s not small pickings. It’s money that could be used for the good of the rakyat – a lot of good. If some of it is not recovered when the loans are due, more money will have to be pumped into the fund. Where will that money come from?
Of course, we can say that PTPTN money is for the good cause of higher education so it might be all right if the recipients don’t pay back or take their time to do so, but a loan is a loan. Its terms and conditions have to be respected. If you tak berani tanggung, you shouldn’t take a loan. You can’t say afterwards that paying back will cause you to be in debt. You should know what you’ll be in for.
Of course, if the Government decides to scrap PTPTN and write off the loans, that’s a totally different matter. But until that happens, the loan agreement is sacrosanct.
Even for a scholarship, there is usually the condition of the recipient being bonded by employment to the Government after graduation, which he or she must respect. If they renege, they must pay back in cash.
But more than the issue of money, what is important to consider here is that this is not the way to run a government agency. By not doing its job the way it should, PTPTN is showing a bad example of government operations.
As for Agos Cholan, the things he said in the interview reflect an unseemly attitude. If he brings that to bear in his job, he should seriously reconsider his position.
He said PTPTN wants to do things “the nice way”, i.e. it refuses to come down hard on debtors. How could he say that? It’s not the role of PTPTN to be “nice”.
How could he also say, “So far, we have been quite nice and moderate. We advertise in newspapers, on billboards and hold awareness campaigns to tell the people, ‘Pay back lah’”.
That sounds utterly unprofessional. And of course if PTPTN puts it that way, nobody’s going to pay lah. So perhaps we could say, “Agos Cholan should step down lah.”
He said 130,000 or so debtors have been blacklisted, and of these, only 20 per cent have started paying back. “The rest have not come forward yet. We are still waiting,” he added.
Still waiting? If creditors were to just wait for their debtors to come to them, they’d be out of business in a flash! Sure, PTPTN is not a commercial enterprise or a profit-making organisation, but it is a trustee of the rakyat’s resources.
PTPTN should be proactive instead and go after the debtors. But wait! There is a problem. According to sources quoted by Malaysiakini, many of the students to whom PTPTN gave out loans cannot be traced.
This is incredulous. It reeks of incompetency of the highest order. Keeping track of one’s debtors is the most basic of functions. Otherwise, how can you ensure getting back your money? So how could PTPTN be so lax about keeping proper records and updating them continually?
Agos Cholan is a former banker; he should know better than most people that you can’t lend money and later lose contact with the people you lent it to. What’s his excuse?
Apparently, PTPTN’s database suffered a disaster when it was converted into electronic data under a system that didn’t work well and was then tinkered with under a different system that made it worse. It is now being rebuilt based on the first system, “running on an old engine”. The process has of course cost a lot of money – and a lot of misplacement of data. And “running on an old engine” doesn’t sound like a good prospect.
Agos admits that there was a time when PTPTN couldn’t justify RM5 billion worth of loans – “we didn’t know who took out loans or who has paid; the numbers weren’t there”. This sounds harrowing when so much money is at stake. But he assures us that “it has all been rectified”.
Rectifying it is one thing; using it to spring to action to recover the money is another. Agos eschews using debt collection agencies because he’s worried they might “not be professional enough”.
How about using the legal recourse? After all, there is no excuse for the debtors not to pay. When they signed the loan agreement, they knew what they were in for and they agreed to the terms. So those who have not been paying need to be jolted into honouring those terms. Indeed, if a few debtors were to be hauled to court on this account, it might spook other defaulters into paying up.
But one suspects that PTPTN’s reluctance to enforce legal compliance stems from a fear of offending its loan recipients. These are the youths who will be voting at the upcoming general election. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) would be worried about losing their votes. Especially with Pakatan Rakyat pledging, if it captures Putrajaya, to write off PTPTN loans and provide free tertiary education.
Furthermore, the ‘Occupy Dataran’ campout staged by university students in April to call for the loans to be scrapped has added pressure on BN.
Be that as it may, the BN government will not endear itself to the rakyat if it is seen to be incompetent, inefficient and cavalier about the people’s resources. It might end up being rejected instead.
In any case, nothing beats doing a job right. If PTPTN cannot do its job right, the Government will be held accountable. Then no amount of appeasing the young voters will be of help to the BN cause.
The point of reckoning may ironically be the ballot box.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, available in bookstores together with its Malay translation, Jangan Kelentong Lagi, Kita Semua Orang Malaysia.