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As politicians indulge in power play, ordinary Malaysians struggle

Patients waiting even during the lunch hour at a general hospital

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Elected people’s representatives have a duty to focus on voters’ basic needs, asserts Henry Loh.

Several days ago, a sudden downpour prompted me to take shelter at a verandah along shops on a street in Penang. Next to me was an elderly gentleman in a raincoat and rolled-up pants.

I struck up a conversation with him.

He told me he was waiting to pick up his daughter, who worked as a cleaner in the school directly across the road from us.

Was he himself still working?

No, he had retired as a city council general worker. 

“Good for you,” I said. “At least you get a pension.”

“Susahlah” (it’s tough). From his RM1,100 pension, RM450 goes to pay for his low-cost flat, where he lives with his family. He turned away and gazed at the raindrops pelting onto the road.

“Thankfully, your daughter is working.” I didn’t know what else to say. 

“Yes, but she too earns (the minimum wage of) RM1,100.“

Soon, the rain slowed a little. His daughter emerged from the school, and we said our goodbyes. As father and daughter rode off, I wondered about the millions of other Malaysians struggling to make ends meet and survive just like them.

We need to be conscious that families in the bottom 40% of households are folks with real-life experiences, with basic needs and genuine hopes for a better future. They should not be reduced to mere statistical categories (B40, M40, T20) so that we can conveniently differentiate them from the middle 40% and the top 20%.

Bank Negara Malaysia’s 2017 Annual Report put the median wage at RM1,703 in 2016. The same report showed that in Kuala Lumpur a family with two children needed a monthly income of RM6,500 to live “free of financial stress”. With inflation, the cost of living would be even higher today.

Clearly, the man I met on the verandah and his family are facing a tough time eking out a living. He is not alone. Many others also face financial difficulties.

READ MORE:  Analysis of poverty in Malaysia

Politicians voted in by the people must be sensitive to the wellbeing of the poor and marginalised. They ought to focus their attention, energy and efforts on the welfare of those who are struggling. As elected people’s representatives, they have a duty to focus on voters’ basic needs.

Unfortunately, as Anil Netto points out, many politicians fail to see the people’s silent suffering. The perception is that those in power seem to be more on the side of Big Business. They seem to be promoting mega-projects instead of doing more to solve the economic woes of the bottom 40%.

The government should improve the public healthcare system, provide affordable housing below RM200,000, upgrade public transport and revamp the national education system. It must review and raise the current minimum wage. It should be brave enough to implement progressive taxes while ensuring that businesses have enough incentives to continue operating in Malaysia.

Too often, however, we see politicians busy politicking instead of carrying out their responsibility towards the rakyat. The tussle between the Azmin Ali and Anwar Ibrahim factions of PKR, for example, is being played out almost daily. PKR members aligned to Azmin are sacked, and he himself is “uninvited” from opening the PKR Youth Congress. Azmin, for his part, thinks Dr Mahathir Mohamad should serve out a full term as Prime Minister. These are examples of the subtle and not-so-subtle infighting among key party leaders.

Politicians in power should note that the rakyat are not interested in their intra-party politicking but would rather they work for the benefit of the people. 

So it was no surprise that the formation of the Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity Foundation (Maju) created a stir. Helmed by individuals such as Siti Kasim, Tajuddin Rasdi, Lim Teck Ghee and Patrick Teoh, the group received overwhelming support from progressive, freedom-loving middle-class Malaysians. In the first leg of a Maju roadshow, almost 2,000 people filled the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall for a forum “The Battle is Not Over after May 9th – Be Empowered to Save Malaysia”.

READ MORE:  Middle-income households slip into lower-income category

The self-explanatory theme of the forum and the large crowd showed that Malaysians want to help the nation become more inclusive and to challenge the divisive – and potentially disruptive – dominant ethno-religious narrative.

At the recent Aliran annual general meeting, our outgoing president, Prema Devaraj, reminded members to promote unity and inclusiveness in Malaysia Baru.

Malaysians who voted for change in the 2018 general election placed their trust and confidence in the Pakatan Harapan coalition to do the right thing. They want it to carry out the reforms promised in its manifesto. Alas, many are disappointed that politicians are focusing on divisive racial and religious issues in our multicultural society.

The government should take heed of the observations of Daniel Speziale, a political science student from Leiden University in the Netherlands who has just completed a two-month research internship. Daniel interviewed politicians, activists, teachers and others a year after the euphoria of 9 May 2018. His findings are revealing and should serve as a wake-up call to the ruling coalition to do something urgently to avoid becoming a one-term government.

As the title of Daniele’s article suggests, the government of. “New Malaysia” faces challenging times. He summarises his findings this way: “It may be ‘New Malaysia’, but old patterns persist of minorities being constantly alert to not being taken over by the Malays. Malays, on the other hand, are constantly afraid that their privileges, rights and position might be taken away”.

He observed that the enthusiasm so evident after 9 May 2018 has been replaced by widespread apathy and disillusionment.

Pakatan Harapan must be brave enough to break away from the ethno-religious narrative. It must put forward a more inclusive ideology. It needs the courage to come up with policies that tackle the socioeconomic needs of the poor and the marginalised.

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The voters of Tanjung Piai – both the Malays and the non-Malays – have given the PH government a wake-up call. Is the government prepared to embrace needs-based policies to ensure that all Malaysians, regardless of race and religion, will get the aid they need?

What about the legal reforms promised? Is it so difficult to identify bad laws such as the Sedition Act, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, all of which allow for detention without charge?

Why not repeal the Sedition Act as promised? Stop giving excuses that we need to ensure offences against the royal institutions, race and religion are covered. Why can’t the executive be proactive and highlight how other existing laws can cover these offences and then proceed to repeal the act?

Meanwhile, politicians, in particular, members of Parliament, should learn to give due respect and decorum to the legislature. The level of debate displayed by MPs from both sides of the divide leaves much to be desired. MPs uttering foul language and calling each other names seem to be the norm rather than the exception. How can this be?

The speaker and deputy speakers should put their foot down. They must assert their authority to ensure that all misbehaving MPs toe the line.

It is unacceptable to have a large majority of MPs skipping parliamentary sessions. When parliamentary debates and proceedings have to be suspended due to a lack of quorum, it is a reflection of the highly irresponsible and “tidak apa” attitude of sitting MPs.

As members of civil society and peace-loving folks who support a united and inclusive Malaysia, we call on the powers that be to never forget that the rakyat are watching.

Henry Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
4 December 2019
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