Six months after regime change, Malaysia’s new government faces daunting challenges

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Photograph: Sumisha Naidu/CNA

The Pakatan Harapan government has to steer a course, putting into practice the principles they espoused prior to the general election. This is not an easy task, writes Prema Devaraj.

Tomorrow, 9 November, will be exactly six months since the Pakatan Harapan government came into power.

Just a week ago, the first Budget of the PH government themed Credible Malaysia, Dynamic Economy, Prosperous Rakyat was revealed. Opinions on the Budget were expressed by both JD Lovrenciear and Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam.

Suffice to say, the PH government is trying to steer a direction for the country amidst finding out exactly what the real financial situation of the country is and trying to adhere to the PH election manifesto.

That the country is in need of reform is clear. But care must be taken to ensure that policies and budgets which are put into place are carefully thought out and really address the needs of the people in the long term.

While the budget for public healthcare was raised to RM29bn from last year’s allocation of RM27bn, Jeyakumar Devaraj highlights the concern over the intended health insurance scheme. He warns of the possibility of the scheme further debilitating the public healthcare system and the Malaysian public being saddled with high health insurance payments.

As for the minimum wage raised by RM50 to RM1,100 in the Budget, Anil Netto pushes for a higher more realistic and humane minimum wage of RM1,800. Ronald Benjamin, for his part, ticks off the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF)  for its narrow sector-based thinking and erroneous conclusion that that foreign workers would benefit more than Malaysian workers from the minimum wage hike.

READ MORE:  Penang landslide tragedy: Are construction workers' lives too cheap to matter?

Speaking of foreign workers, a landslide at Bukit Kukus, Paya Terubong, Penang claimed at least nine lives last month. Aliran joined the many voices of outrage and sadness and called for an immediate stop to all hillside development projects. Another group, the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign, asked when such deaths and disasters would stop. When indeed!

Choongcons (Penang) Sdn Bhd, the main contractor at the construction site in Tanjung Bungah, where 11 lives were lost due to a hill collapse in October last year, was fined (almost a year later) a mere RM35,000 at the High Court after admitting it had failed to ensure that the site was risk-free.

Clearly, a simple fine is not enough to teach anyone a lesson. A jail term is what is needed for company directors and those in authority who, through their negligence and indifference, have placed workers at risk, ultimately leading to their deaths.

To make matter worse, the coverage by the Star (5 November 2018) on migrant workers’ housing further fuelled xenophobia and the negative stereotyping of foreign workers. The headline “Too close to home – If your neighbours are foreign workers in the thousands, the jitters you feel can be real, especially if you are a woman with teenage daughters….”

It is a shame that such comments were on a front page (or on any page for that matter) of a national newspaper as it does great injustice towards foreign workers.

It is high time we move away from attributing crime to foreign workers. According to the then deputy inspector general of police in 2016,’“The highest contributors for crime are locals. However, there are also migrant workers who are involved in crimes such as robberies, house break-ins, prostitution and the like.”

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Criminal activity or unsavoury behaviour is not determined by a person’s shape or size, ethnic background, religious beliefs, geographic location, socio-economic or immigration status.

The thing we should be dealing with is that foreign workers (and that includes migrant domestic workers) are probably victims of crime more often than they are perpetrators. And one can safely assume that there is under-reporting of crimes committed against foreign workers especially by errant agents, employers and enforcement agents.

The worry about being surrounded by large groups of foreign workers in residential units should lead us to ask why foreign workers are being housed in cramped living quarters. What is the duty and responsibility of the state and employers to provide decent accommodation without further exploitation by landlords or by other mechanisms?

The Penang state government must be commended for taking up this issue seriously. But while dormitories for foreign workers are being proposed (and built) as the way forward, segregating people will only serve to fuel negative stereotyping of foreign workers among other things. We just have to ask ourselves what work conditions and treatment we would want for ourselves or our family members if we or our family members went overseas to work.

And let’s not forget what’s going on across the South China Sea with our brothers and sisters in Borneo. JD Lovrenciear calls on politicians in Peninsular Malaysia to learn from Sabah and Sarawak and put a stop to six decades of race-based and theocratic politics which has divided the country.

Meanwhile Save Rivers reports on a disturbing episode in Mukah in Sarawak, where Iban people from six villages in the Ulu Kelawit Tatau gathered in front of the Mukah Police Station for two days to peacefully protest the arrest of 11 community members who had been detained since 25 October. The arrests happened in response to a peaceful blockade set up by the communities in opposition to a rock quarry and oil palm company that had polluted and destroyed their water source and taken their land allegedly without proper compensation.

READ MORE:  Budget 2018 is prudent, pragmatic – a people’s Budget

And on it goes. There are many challenges ahead for the country. The PH government has to steer a course, putting into practice the principles they espoused prior to the general election. This is not an easy task and much thinking and planning needs to go into this.

The disclosure of PH parliamentarians’ monthly incomes is a start but if the practice is really meant to prevent corruption, illicit enrichment and conflict of interest, it must go beyond monthly income and allowances and include full asset disclosure.

The rakyat will continue to hope for better. We have had many years of looking at ‘what’s wrong’. For the change we want, we need to see more examples of ‘what’s right’ taking place.

Prema Devaraj
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
8 November 2018

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Challenge 1: Allow more bargaining power, including rights to strike as well as greater protections to workers under the Trade Unions and Industrial acts.

https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2018/11/09/factory-workers-caught-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place/

Challenge 2: Strengthen environmental and ecology protection laws and make sure to enforce them strictly.

https://www.malaymail.com/s/1691653/groups-protest-against-penang-development-projects