Malaysia’s “unity government” held its first parliamentary sitting on 13 February, three months after being formed.
The government that emerged from last year’s general election may not be to everyone’s liking, but this is what the country has for now. Warts and all, the present cabinet and elected representatives must do what is necessary to move the country forward.
It’s been a long time coming, but finally the cabinet has agreed to amend the Federal Constitution’s citizenship rules to allow Malaysian women the right to grant citizenship to their children, even if they are born overseas to foreign fathers.
Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail and Law and Institutional Reform Minister Azalina Othman Said said in a joint statement that the proposed amendment is expected to be tabled in the current meeting of Parliament.
We will have to see what takes place then. But this is definitely a step forward towards gender equality and child rights.
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Earlier in the year, an engagement session with various stakeholders for the proposed amendments to the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 and the Evidence of Child Witness Act 2007 was held.
Azalina’s office said in a statement that “amendments to the relevant Acts are important to ensure the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in handling cases of sexual offences involving children”.
Stakeholders discussed a range of concerns, including the challenges faced during the investigation, prosecution, trial and post-trial processes for criminal cases involving child victims and witnesses.
Effective laws are undoubtedly necessary to protect victims of sexual crimes and to prosecute perpetrators. Equally important is the enforcement and implementation of these laws, including guidelines on how to handle victims of sexual crimes.
At a national judiciary dialogue last October on ways to improve court processes involving child sexual crime victims, organised by the Women’s Centre for Change Penang, the WCC presented data from a small study on issues and challenges facing child victims in the criminal justice system.
The WCC focused on 35 cases of sexual crimes involving children in mainly the Penang courts between 2018 and August 2022, in which the WCC had provided support for the victims and their families.
The data revealed the following:
- In 77% of the cases, the child victims received a pre-trial briefing only on the day of the trial
- In 86% of the cases, no application had been made for the use of a video live link in court; however, a screen (a physical barrier between the accused and the victim) was used in 74% of the cases
- In 26% of these cases, the child or the child’s family cited intimidation during the criminal justice process; of these, a third dropped out or withdrew their complaint
- In 77% of the cases where a child gave testimony, the child was on his or her own in court, without a support person
Legislation and guidelines exist to protect and support the victims in all the above scenarios.
The ground realities for many victims, however, tell a different story. If victims feel frightened or intimidated, they will not be able to give full testimony. Worse, they may drop out of the criminal justice system, and this will affect the case outcomes.
Victims and witnesses give better testimony when they feel safe, unafraid, prepared for and supported during the court process.
Drafting or fine-tuning laws to ensure the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in handling cases of sexual offences involving children is critical.
But equal emphasis and investment must also go to the institutionalisation of support and training of service providers and stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
The implementation of laws and guidelines should also be regularly monitored. This will better ensure support for victims journeying through the criminal justice system.
In January a woman was reportedly denied entry into a police station in Kajang, Selangor because she was wearing shorts – which was apparently against the dress code for the station.
More recently, a medical officer at the Kampar Hospital reportedly refused treatment for a woman in shorts. Whatever next?
In 2015 theSun ran an article “Dress code in government agencies only for civil servants“.
The then minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Azalina Othman Said, was reported as saying that there was no specific dress code stipulated for the public to follow when visiting any government agencies. Only civil servants were bound by the dress code at their workplace, which would be updated from time to time. Government offices would still attend to the public even if they were not appropriately dressed at the offices, she maintained.
A similar view was also held by the then law minister, Nancy Shukri, who was reported as saying people should be able to wear whatever they want, as long as it was not indecent.
Fast forward to the present, and Nancy Shukri, the current Minister for Women, Family and Community Development has maintained her stand: “It is inappropriate to deny access to any individuals to a police station regardless of how they dress.”
The enforcement of any arbitrary dress code on the ordinary public, especially those who are accessing government services and help, is unacceptable.
Worse, it is discriminatory and a form of control over people’s freedom of choice of dressing, especially that of women.
Denying services based on attire is really bullying people into a way of dressing.
Service providers in government are supposed to provide services to the public. The focus should be on the delivery of fast and effective service with compassion and common sense.
Whether a knee or a thigh or both of someone accessing services is visible is not the issue. Neither is a subjective view of decency.
Let’s hope the new administration will have the courage to do away with dress codes for the public in government offices.
Poverty in the making
The list of issues facing the government is long. Key is the need for the government to work towards providing a social security net for all layers of society, as people struggle with inflation and rising living costs.
Withdrawals from Employees Provident Fund (EPF) savings during the Covid pandemic have eroded members’ retirement savings. According to EPF data, 51.5% or 6.7 million members under 55 had savings below RM10,000 at the end of 2022. Of these, 3.2 million members had savings less than RM1,000.
How will these people survive in their retirement years? At this rate, they will retire in poverty.
The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), in its national recovery campaign #RakyatMintaLima, has proposed a monthly pension for the elderly who are without any form of pension, under the pillar of empowering social security.
This is something the present government should consider while continuing with cash handouts to vulnerable groups.
Meanwhile, the full implementation of the minimum wage of RM1,500 remains a struggle despite a minimum wage order being in effect since 1 May 2022. Employees in workplaces with fewer than five workers have to wait until July 2023 for the expected RM1,500 salary.
The central bank Bank Negara had in 2018 proposed a living wage of RM2,600 for a single adult in Kuala Lumpur. So doesn’t it make you wonder how people survive on RM1,500 a month, especially with rising living costs? How much do you think they can contribute to their retirement savings? What does the future look like for them?
A recent article highlighted plans for a “deforest-reforest” scheme at the Kledang Saiong forest reserve in Perak. The Department of Environment released in December 2022 a draft environmental impact assessment report for the proposed forest plantation on 4,280 hectares (about 6,000 football fields) within the forest reserve for public feedback.
The project’s primary aim is apparently “to ensure adequate and continuous supply of timber for the local and overseas wood-based industry”.
This enormous project raises many concerns: soil erosion, silting in the nearby river, the risk of flooding in nearby villages, the impact on the Orang Asli in the area (in Bukit Chermin) and a massive loss of biodiversity in the area.
In this time of climate crisis and what we are already witnessing with large-scale land clearing, is this what the country should be doing? Who actually benefits from projects such as these?
The government has its hands full. Its every step will be watched closely. Hopefully, the “Malaysia Madani” slogan (Madani is the Malay acronym for sustainability, care and compassion, respect, innovation, prosperity, and trust) will not be an empty one.
Meanwhile, we the people must realise the role each of us can play in bringing to the fore the reforms the country needs.
Let’s also spare a thought for those affected by the Turkey-Syria earthquakes, which have left 46,000 dead and counting. The extent of suffering and devastation is unimaginable. It is good that the Malaysian government is sending support to both countries. If you are able to, please donate to the Mercy Malaysia Türkiye 2023 Earthquake emergency relief fund through: MERCY Humanitarian Fund, MBB 5621 7950 4126, Swift code: MBBEMYKL.
As the days pass, we see the hands of humanity, from different governments and rescue teams from around the world, reaching out to support, rescue and comfort.
It is in prioritising our shared humanity that we can find a way forward.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
20 February 2023