Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai was today overwhelmed by a barrage of questions over his RM24,200 bid for the WWW15 vehicle number-plate, which at times left him fumbling for answers.
At a press conference at the MCA headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Liow said he was unsure who had forked out the money, but was certain that his ministry did not foot the bill.
While claiming that he did not place importance on specific digits, he struggled for answers when asked why such large sum of money was spent for the number-plate.
He skirted the question and said he did not know what the cost was when the bid was made.
Liow repeatedly stressed his "eligibility" as a minister to obtain such number-plates and that his officers and Road Transport Department (JPJ) officers had handled the matter.
Occasionally, MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek had to step in to assist his deputy, explaining that the money was just going "from the left hand to the right hand" as all the money goes to a government consolidated fund from all ministries.
Liow yesterday defended the bid, saying his ministry was replacing his official car and there was a need for a new number-plate.
Earlier today, Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Daily had quoted an unnamed officer as saying that the Treasury has never allocated any funds for ministers to submit bids for a number-plate for their official cars.
Excerpts follow of the dialogue between Liow and reporters; these have been edited for language and brevity:
Journalist: Who paid the bid for the number-plate?
Liow: I mentioned yesterday that this is a government official car, and so ministers are eligible to have one number-plate, so the process is official.
We are just going through the office and applying to the JPJ. JPJ is the one which processes the application.
Journalist: Is the ministry paying the bill? Who paid for this?
Liow: No. No. It’s all up to JPJ to handle this, we leave it to JPJ ..
Journalist: But who paid the cost, I know the process is handled by JPJ but who paid the cost?
Liow: I got to check, I’m not sure, it’s under JPJ.
Journalist: That means you didn’t pay to bid for that particular...
Liow : Like I said, ministers are eligible for one number, so I didn’t exercise the option earlier, so since my ministry is changing the car, so they just changed it.
Journalist: So you are saying your officer handled this?
Chua: Usually this option is given to members of the administration both at state and federal (levels). So when you are in exco, you are entitled to officially bid for a number, or the state government will give you a number.
Journalist: Does that mean that when you are allowed to bid, you have to use your own money?
Chua: No, the government allows you to allocate a number, you can ask for a number. Of course, you cannot go and bid (for) number one lah .
Journalist: I’m referring to a Sin Chew report today, they interviewed an official from the Ministry of Finance, they said there is no such allocation for (any) ministry...
Liow: There’s no need for allocation, it’s the eligibility of the minister [sic] . There’s no need for allocation at all.
But numbers to me are not important, I think most important is the service to people. For us, it is more important to carry out work efficiently.
Any number, I’m using ( words inaudible ) my car is using any number ... it’s not important to me. So doesn’t matter whether I get the 15, or 200 or 1,000. It doesn’t matter to me. More important thing is the official car and we can use the car to serve the people.
Journalist: Why use your own name to bid?
Liow: Well I’m the minister of health...
Journalist: Is that a normal practice?
Liow: It’s a normal practice, yes, maybe it creates a lot of confusion; it’s better that I clarify and let the public know.
Journalist: Was it worth it to (spend) RM20,000 for a number-plate?
Liow: No, because we do not know the cost. For me, when I applied we did not know the cost. It just happened that I need the numbers, I need the car that’s all. I did not know the cost.
Journalist: But normally when we bid we need to pay to bid, right?
Liow: No, as explained earlier, this is the eligibility of a minister [sic] , official car, that’s all. Even Lim Guan Eng has one of this kind of official car. So every… either state or federal as explained by my (MCA) president just now…
Chua: At the state level, the excos are also entitled to one car, err, to a number.
Journalist: Does the number 15 mean anything special to you?
Liow: ( Pauses ) Well, just because my grandfather is using this number (on his car). Nothing special, there’s no special meaning to this number. It is just a number. That’s why I said ... to this number, it’s nothing special.
Journalist: But if it's nothing special, then no need to bid for the number-plate ..
Liow: Nothing special, I just need a number.
Journalist: Can be any number what ...
Liow: [ word inaudible ] That’s why I said, it can be any number, it can be any number, so I just choose the number and that’s it.
Journalist: But you don’t have to spend so much money on this number if any (number) is okay.
Liow: I’m okay with any number, yes.
Journalist: But then, why spend RM24,000 on this particular bid?
Liow: No, just because it just happens that I need to change the car, that’s why I need a number.
Journalist: Why not retain the number-plate from the previous car?
Liow: No, they’ve changed (to) the new car, the old car is still there, I cannot change the number.
Chua: Those are official cars, those numbers don’t belong to him actually.
Journalist: What happens to those old official cars?
Chua: Another person will use it, he cannot just transfer the number just like that.
[Questions shift to the recent Merdeka Centre poll which revealed that the approval rating for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had dipped, because of a plunge in Chinese support]
Journalist: Back to the car number-plate - some processes to clarify. What you are trying to say is if you buy a new car, you must bid for a new number-plate, you cannot use an old number-plate for a new car...
Liow: Because that’s old official car, I... umm, I’m, I’m…
Chua: You must understand, when it’s a ministry car, the car does not belong to him, you understand or not?
Journalist: Now that the number has been allocated, the RM24,200 comes from the ministry?
Liow: No, no, no, not allocated by ministry.
Journalist :Then where does it come from?
Chua: This is a question of the money from the left hand going to the right hand. Because all money goes to the government consolidated fund from any ministry.
Journalist: So you’re saying its just one ministry to another department?
Chua: Ahh... it’s just left hand to right, to be honest.
Journalist: Can I say number 15 is your favourite number?
Liow: I said earlier any number will do, I have no specific numbers. It just happened that I chose 15 - it doesn’t mean that it’s the favourite number.