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One year on, time for PH to refocus economy to address plight of bottom 40%

A long queue waiting at the crowded Penang General Hospital - ANIL NETTO/FILE PHOTO

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We also need to recruit a new generation of action-oriented and reformist-minded civil servants, writes Francis Loh.

On 9 May 2019, it will be one year since Pakatan Harapan (PH) ousted Barisan Nasional. That was a tsunami of a change! For BN had been in power for 60 years before that.

Since then seven by-elections have been held: PH has won four, including Anwar Ibrahim’s Port Dickson parliamentary seat.

After Port Dickson, PH suffered three successive electoral defeats – in Semenyih, in Cameron Highlands and in the Negri Sembilan state-seat of Rantau, where the PKR candidate Dr S Streram lost to acting Umno chief Mohamad Hasan.

Indications are that PH will win the Sandakan contest on 11 May and reverse the trend of electoral losses.

Even if that comes to pass, not all is well for the PH government. According to pollsters Merdeka Centre, PH’s popularity among the rakyat has taken quite a knock: the “satisfaction index” towards Dr Mahathir Mohamad has dropped; the people’s “happiness” with the federal government has also declined. The decline among Malays was down to about 50%.

Thus even if PH wins the upcoming Sandakan by-election, an urban seat, there is some cause for alarm.

In his interview with Channel News Asia in Singapore recently, Anwar Ibrahim claimed that the PH government had faced a backlash from the majority Malay community because it had succumbed too much to “pressure from the urban elite and civil society”.

The PH government, he said, must do more to focus on the “bread and butter issues faced by the rural Malay population”, such as the low price of rubber.

He acknowledged that human rights, judicial independence – and one could add, ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, participation in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and meritocracy – are important issues which needed to be addressed.

Nonetheless, for Anwar, “the crux of the problem is still the economy. Economic hardship is real, we will have to deal with this with the greatest urgency, or risk a rise in religious bigotry and racism”.

No doubt, Umno and Pas have been working together and pushing the race and religion agenda in a bid to win votes from rural Malays in the past few by-elections.

Consequently, the rural Malays, Anwar argued, have wrongly perceived that the PH government has been formulating policies that marginalise them.

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Urban elite and rural poor divide?

That said, Anwar also believed that “the urban elite sets a list of priorities which are a disconnect from the real problems of the poor, and at times, the elite seems to ignore these real problems… I have not heard them talking about … poverty, inequality…”, said Anwar in the interview.

He called upon the urban folk to go down to the rural districts, engage with the rural folks to show that the “rich urban technocrats” are concerned about their welfare.

In this regard, he stressed the need to continue the affirmative action policy. He said the government would continue to help the rural poor, including helping them to get into the universities, so that they could be brought up to the same level as the rest.

Anwar’s remarks must be in response to the negative reporting that has been carried especially in the Chinese media regarding the PH government’s announcement to raise the intake of students into the matriculation programme from 25,000 to 40,000 students, of whom 90% would be bumiputera.

Significantly, Anwar also stressed in the interview that “the government’s economic agenda must be needs-based and not race-based and racial politics must be shed for the country to move forward”.

If that be the case, the PH must ensure that those additional bumiputera recruited into matriculation classes, with an eye towards helping them to enrol in public universities subsequently, come from the bottom 40% of households (B40). The PH government should also be applauded for its tweaking of BR1M into Bantuan Sara Hidup. which is rightly targeting the B40.

Alas, two other PH policies – raising the minimum wage by a mere RM50 from RM1,050 to RM1,100 and the health insurance scheme mySalam National Protection Scheme, which many have criticised will benefit an insurance company rather than the B40 for whom the scheme is aimed at – are inconsistent with what Anwar is advocating.

Perhaps we can access some ideas on how to reach down to the B40 from former Sungai Siput MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, who has elaborated on the plight of the poor in Malaysia in an article published in the Aliran website on 2 March 2019 and deserves to be read, if you have not already done so.

Entitled “PH’s survival hinges on whether it can ease poverty”, Devaraj lists some of these poor communities in Malaysia, among them the “urban pioneers”, who opened the fringes of our urban areas but who have continued to live in squatter tenements; those who live in run-down flats which they often rent in urban areas; single mothers living in plantation communities; and part-time plantation workers whose livelihoods are threatened by current low commodity prices for the rubber or palm oil they produce. He also discusses the plight of stateless children, old-age pensioners and foreign workers. Perhaps PH can design policies and programmes that will address these poor groups.

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On 31 March 2019 Aliran, together with other NGOs involved in the Penang Housing Network (Jaringan Perumahan Pulau Pinang) met in the Caring Society Complex to discuss the difficulties the poor have in finding a flat to live in. Part of the problem, no doubt is because there are simply not enough low-cost or low-medium-cost houses being built! Instead, there is an over supply of expensive luxurious apartments!

Aliran is grateful that the Penang executive council member in charge of housing, Jagdeep Singh, was present to share with the audience what the Penang state government has been doing about housing. Alas, his rather positive summary of achievements did not square with the views expressed by many in the discussion. To his credit, Jagdeep asked the critics to submit more information to him for his perusal.

And on 30 April in Gerakbudaya, Petaling Jaya, Aliran organised a talk by Dr David McCoy, who opened a discussion on “Challenges facing the Malaysian healthcare system”.

Civil society must take over and reform the state

Anwar’s concerns about reaching out to the rural poor aside, I am also anxious that civil society organisations (CSOs) might be overplaying their card as watchdogs, whistleblowers and critics. This must continue.

But CSOs also need to engage with the state in a positive manner. By this is meant, CSOs must penetrate and negotiate the state and perhaps, over the longer term, take over and steer the state.

Accordingly, some CSO activists must endeavour to become members of the civil service! For, as we all know, much of the civil service has been compromised by inefficiency, slack, wastage (of time and resources), a general lack of professionalism – and by corrupt practices and nepotism. This is the net effect of one-party rule over 60 years. Invariably, the civil service and its operations were politicised and compromised.

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A new set of values and an ethos of efficiency and professionalism must be re-instilled into the Malaysian bureaucracy. Those who cannot adapt to the demands of reforming the bureaucracy should step down and step aside. Of course, this will not happen overnight.

But the point is that we need to recruit a new generation of action-oriented and reformist-minded civil servants. This is also the time to stress that henceforth we want to transfer to a B40 needs-based plan from the race-based one which the majority of the civil servants have previously adhered to and prioritised.

There is an urgent need to re-programme and steer the educational system, which has almost half a million teachers and administrators under the Ministry of Education. The public health services needs emergency treatment so that the standard of services provided is upgraded. Urgent re-thinking on how to retain our specialist doctors must be conducted.

No doubt, throughout the world, governments have resorted to privatising public transport, mass communications services and the provision of public utilities in order to upgrade the delivery of these services.

But that is not necessarily the way out. The provision of these services can be decentralised to the state and local authorities who always know more about local problems and therefore can take them into consideration when they plan and deliver these services.

I could go on and on but you get the drift: there are numerous shortcomings in the public sector.

Put another way, we have to rebuild the state not only in reference to the judicial system, the legislature, the Electoral Commission, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the Attorney General’s Chambers, the police, Bank Negara and the myriad of government-linked companies.

Much attention has been directed towards who among the CSO activists and critics have been appointed to some of these important institutions. Or to whether capable professionals have been appointed to take over the tottering and near-bankrupt government-linked companies.

In fact, we need to rebuild those parts of the state where less drama has occurred. With regime change, there is some opportunity for reform of the civil service itself.

This will be a long-term and frustrating affair. Change will come slowly, hopefully “one day at a time”.

But the changes must be initiated now. Encourage critical CSO activists not only to criticise from outside but to initiate changes from within. Become the reformist teacher and lecturer. If indeed we wish to adopt the Finnish model of education, a lot needs to be done!

Be the concerned civil servant who will stand up for integrity while delivering excellent service in the bureaucracy. We need whole sets of urban and regional planners; all types of engineers, architects, surveyors and landscapers; environmentalists, agriculturalists, agronomists, not forgetting people who are into climate change.

And while we are at it, fight for rewarding those civil servants who stand for reformasi. Perhaps it is also time for another review of civil service remunerations.

Have a meaningful bulan Ramadan!

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
4 May 2019
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