Arthur C Clarke is one of the greatest science fiction writers of all times. Apart from his most famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sir Arthur has an all-rounder persona. He is described as an inventor and futurist. He won the Franklin Institute Stuart Ballantine Gold Medal in 1963 for his ideas and role in geostationary satellites telecommunications; became the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society; and was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. A celebrity of sorts, Arthur Clarke also hosted the British television series Mysterious World.
But there is a focal downside to Arthur C Clarke’s illustrious career. Accusations of paedophilia were levelled against him: – that he had had sex with young boys in his adopted home of Sri Lanka. He never recovered from the illicit allegations, even until his death in 2008, made intricately difficult by the fact that he is gay and that he has only attempted half-hearted efforts to deny such claims.
It is of Arthur C Clarke that immediately comes to mind when I read the newspaper write-up on our own spaceman, Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Sheikh Mustapha, entitled “Still flying high” (The Sunday Star, 25 January 2009). Our own angkasawan possesses many of the Malaysia Boleh qualities that many of us appear to be lacking of- “diversity”. Dr Sheikh Muszaphar, apart from his current job as an astronaut, lists in his resume: of being a surgeon, a restaurateur and a part-time model. Of course, adding to this list now is being an author and writer; considering the successful publishing of his book, Reaching for the Stars and his latest offering, Trust Fully Revealed.
I don’t mean to be entirely cynical, but I doubt these books will likely achieve the literary accomplishment in the mould of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, amidst the public adoration of the accomplishment of the poster boy Angkasawan, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar’s career also bears the dark stain, akin to his fellow space counterpart Arthur C Clarke. Dogged by allegations that the Angkasawan made a fortune in the tune of RM1.2 million for charging in his talks (RM 8,000 per hour to an estimate of 150 corporate organizations), culminating in the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry to embark on a probe into the allegations.
Dr Sheikh Muszaphar, as did Arthur C Clarke previously, attempted to refute the allegations, but the rebuttal raises more questions than answers. He responded (perhaps taking cue from standard politician’s answer) by saying that the allegations were a petty issue. He acknowledged that he has indeed given talks, but refuted as to the number of organizations (not more than 10, as opposed to 150). He also acknowledged that he has accepted moneys, but did not specify the amount, instead arguing these were mere “allowances”, which he did not ask for in the first place.
Like a seasoned politician, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar attempted damage control by swaying into justification / sympathy reasoning: – he said he had spent a lot of his own money during the angkasawan programme (and therefore justifies this “reimbursement”); that he has no knowledge of the amounts that was paid as the sums are deposited directly into his bank account (see no evil, do no evil?); and that the money was deposited into a fund for his nephew and niece (awww, how awfully cute …).
In November 2008, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar’s family came out in defence of him. His brother, Sheikh Taufik, who often accompanied the Dr Sheikh Muszaphar for talks around the country, lamented that his brother does not get paid for programmes organized under the Angkasawan programme like road shows and school visits. However, it was later revealed that Dr Sheikh Muszaphar was provided with a car by the Ministry and was paid a RM5000-plus salary. But apparently that was not enough, for the Angkasawan’s father, Datuk Sheikh Mustapha Syed Shukor complained that his son had to pay for a driver and a bodyguard from his own pockets!
On January 19, 2009, the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry cleared the Angkasawan of the financial allegations. The Minister, Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili said although the ministry found he had contravened a few clauses in his contract, action could not be taken as there were certain “grey areas” in the contract. The probe also revealed that Dr Sheikh Muszaphar did indeed give talks, but it was mitigated by the fact that the talks were given after office hours and when he was overseas. It was also exposed that Dr Sheikh Muszaphar did indeed charged, and was duly paid, for the talks, but the amount was not in the region of RM1 million.
This whole episode indeed shows the guffaw between the ministry and the Angkasawan. The angkasawan programme has been criticized since its inception. And to make matters worse, we now have the man whom Malaysians help produce into a superstar fleecing us with his “entrepreneur” skills. The government will have to share the blame for producing a badly drafted contract which cannot pin the wrongdoer of his wrongdoing. Badly drafted contacts by governmental ministries are not new. I have had a first hand experience by defending a client who was sued by the Ministry of Agriculture years ago. Needless to say, my client got away scot-free because of the ambiguous terms of the badly spelled agreement. It also didn’t help that the million dollar contract was signed many months after the conclusion of the event (my client was appointed the organizer of a government event).
Dr Sheikh Muszaphar may be cleared legally but a badly drafted contract cannot absolve a person from wrongdoing. Legally or otherwise, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar has no business profiting in any way from his coveted position as the nation’s angkasawan. This position was handed to him in a silver platter. He is the country’s first and only astronaut. It is an appointment that comes with fiduciary duty. It is a job held on trust for the rakyat. Even directors of companies are legally expected not to make profits from their positions in the company. The law even spells out that any director that has an interest in a contract to disclose their interest for the shareholders’ approval. Are we to say ok to ministers to start making extra pocket money by giving talks after office hours?
The proper thing for Dr Sheikh Muszaphar to do is not to profit from his position, whether directly or indirectly, during the tenure of his contract. It would be morally wrong to do so. Focus on the task assigned in his terms of contract. He has already been given an adequate allowance, plus a car. With all the publicity, what more can one asks for. Sure, no one is stopping him to make money, but he is always free to do so after the expiration of his contract. Not only is he criticizing the government (akin to biting the hand that feeds), he has taken the angkasawan programme in his own hands. The programme does not belong to him, it belongs to the rakyat.
It is also not proper to see Dr Sheikh Muszaphar gracing celebratory glossies and gaining free publicity and advertisement on his Restaurant Rebong in uptown Bangsar. There are people out there who cannot afford to pay for advertisement fee to keep their humble businesses afloat during these hard times. Here is a man who has a full time job with the ministry, a car given, gets to go to space, and earn more money from public talks.
And I do wonder how much he makes from his books- Reaching for the Stars and Trust Fully Revealed.