Despite some hiccups and unhappiness, Henry Loh gives us some signs to show how the new government has been different from the previous regime.
It has only been five months since the historic regime change in Malaysia, and thus far we can safely say this government through its overall performance has been able to avoid being labelled “just like BN (Barisan Nasional) but with a different name”.
Take for instance the arrest of Azman Noor Adam, the younger brother of Umno supreme council member Lokman Adam, for allegedly sharing an insulting photo of Dr Mahathir Mohamed on social media. Initial reports indicated that Azman might be charged under the archaic and draconian Sedition Act.
This raised alarm bells among human rights defenders in civil society. Thankfully, members of the current regime were quick to acknowledge that the proposal to repeal draconian acts such as the Sedition Act was in their election manifesto and should be carried out.
Many of us heaved a sigh of relief when we heard that the cabinet had agreed to impose a moratorium on the use of the Sedition Act. For the record, NGOs like Aliran, Suaram, Lawyers for Liberty and others have consistently called for the repeal of draconian laws. Suaram, for instance, issued a statement reminding the current regime of its promise to abolish and repeal draconian and oppressive acts.
Recently, the government announced a proposal to increase the basic minimum wage to RM1,050 from the current RM1,000 – an increase of just RM50. This prompted dissatisfaction among many workers as it was deemed mere tokenism. The small hike also showed up a distinct lack of sincerity in raising the purchasing power of the bottom 40% of households (B40).
In response, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, Parti Sosialis Malaysia, 17 unions and other NGOs organised a protest outside Parliament. Over 200 people attended the protest.
To the credit of the new regime, Human Resources Minister M Kula Segaran personally received the memorandum and reassured the protesters that he would take the proposed minimum wage hike back to the cabinet for a relook.
Under the previous regime, a similar protest would have resulted in the police ordering the protesters to disperse or risk arrest for taking part of an ‘illegal assembly’. We certainly hope that this government will continue to be open to criticism and dissenting views and accept peaceful protests and respect freedom of association and expression.
The government should consider some of the cogent arguments put forward by Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, the former MP for Sungai Siput. Kumar points out that Malaysia could no longer rely on a low-wage policy to produce goods cheaply for the export market. He argues that we need to increase the purchasing power of the B40 so that they can buy more essential items. This will boost the income of stall-holders and pasar malam traders, who will eventually spend more. Ultimately, medium and large-sized businesses will also benefit.
The government should realise that most business owners who employ workers would disapprove of any increase in their labour costs as it would reduce their profits. This reasoning should be juxtaposed with the argument that lack of demand due to poor purchasing power will eventually result in business failure.
A recent Khazanah Research Institute study showed that the average lower-income household would only have RM76 to spare after deducting household expenses. This finding further supports the argument for a more significant and meaningful wage hike.
The new government will be tabling its first national budget in early November. In contrast to the previous regime, which provided few hints of what the public could expect, this government, perhaps in trying to soften the blow, has already indicated that more taxes would be imposed. Together with Ramon Navaratnam, we can only hope that new taxes will be directed at the wealthy who can most afford them and not the poor and the middle class.
Without doubt, the new regime has inherited a country saddled with monumental debt and a civil service that is not quite ‘ready’ to give their full and unreserved support to the government of the day.
Under the circumstances, the rakyat will understand that it takes time for real and effective reforms to take place. Still, we would like to see sincere, genuine efforts and clear steps taken to bring about all the reforms promised in the manifesto.
Perhaps as a guide, the new regime should always have its ears to the ground and quickly take corrective measures if and when the rakyat start murmuring, “This government is no different from the previous one.”
Hidup Rakyat, Hidup Malaysia!
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
23 October 2018