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Enough of ethno-religious talk; focus on easing people’s plight

Photograph: Choo Choy May/Malay Mail

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It is time to look at the other critical issues affecting the bottom 40%, writes Ngu Ik Tien.

Of late, the focus and concentration of ethno-religious narratives in the public domain has been overwhelming.

The big question is how does one criticise racism and religious extremism without letting them dominate the Malaysian public discourse? This is a question that many have thought about for the past few weeks but have not yet found satisfactory answers. However, when I turned to the Aliran website, I get some hints on how to deal with the problem.

One way of steering public discourse is to start researching and writing on other equally important issues such as the social and economic predicament of the bottom 40% of households.

Early this month, the Aliran website received a number of articles about the economic predicament of the working class. One of the longstanding problems faced by our low-skilled workers is that of being underpaid. The explanations for their plight are multi-layered.

Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a steadfast activist for worker interests, explains why local workers have long been underpaid by looking at the global economic system, which has been dominated by multinational companies.

He refutes the accusation that workers are poorly paid due to their low productivity. Though he may be aware that many Malaysian firms may also be “guilty” of underpaying their employees, he contends that it is the global chain controlled by multinationals that discourages local firms from paying reasonable wages.

Meanwhile, he criticises the “advice” given by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to developing countries regarding the signing of free trade agreements. He believes it will not solve the economic predicament of the developing countries. Instead, it will condone the injustice of the existing low wages received by their local workers.

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The quandary faced by underpaid local workers prompts us to examine other factors such as the effectiveness of our national vocational education and the dependence of Malaysian companies on foreign labour.

In his article, JD Lovrenciear disagrees with Malaysian Employers Federation president Azman Shah who reportedly said employers favour foreign workers over locals as the latter are choosy about jobs. Lovrenciear criticises the business community for failing to offer better working deals for local labour and instead relying on cheap foreign labour to keep labour costs low. Clearly the principle adopted is “profits before people”.

Besides these writings, others too spoke out about the economic situation in Malaysia. Readers of these articles may find themselves liberated from the highly charged racial issues of the day, even if only for a while, and begin to focus on other important national issues.

This is not to say that tackling ethnic divisions on education, cultural and religious issues with the hope of forming a national consensus is not important. But that is a monumental task that may not see any major improvements in the near future.

Remember, the most salient issues in the 2018 general election were national economic issues, represented by the scandal-ridden 1MDB, and the ordinary people’s bread-and-butter issues, represented by the unpopular Goods and Services Tax. These issues spurred Malaysians to rise and defeat a corrupt regime.

Thus, by discussing and focusing more on the economic predicament of the bottom 40%, civil society and intellectuals may be able to steer the public discourse to a future we want to build.

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Malaysia is for all Malaysians. Only if we stand together in unity, regardless of ethnicity and religion, will the country progress.

Ngu Ik Tien
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
12 October 2019
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