Traditional Medicine Act 2012: Has the government lost its marbles?

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Could it not have formulated a less ambitious and less intrusive piece of legislation?The over-riding desire is to CONTROL – the passage of this Act criminalises the practice of traditional medicine unless one registers with the Council and receives a practising certificate, notes Jeyakumar Devaraj.

KL Chinatown : Chinese medicine store

Sigmund Freud in his heyday would put his patients on the couch and invite them to relax and recount their dreams. This technique was, in Freud’s hands, a window into their subconciousness – a peek into the passions and unconscious motives that determined these patients’ actions. We do not have such access to the dreams – or should it be nightmares? – of our venerable BN leaders. But we have an equally useful window to peek into at their collective subconciousness – the strange laws that they sometimes bring to Parliament!

On 24 September 2012, we in parliament witnessed the tabling of a law to regulate Traditional Medical Practitioners. There is nothing wrong with the intention to keep track of and provide some regulation to traditional medical practitioners. But the law being proposed makes a quantum leap from a regime of almost no supervision to one where there is excessive supervision!

Section 3 of the new Act defines traditional medicine as any “form of health related practice designed to prevent, treat or manage illness or preserve the mental and physical well-being of an individual”. The Act then goes on to say that all those practising traditional medicine have to be registered under the Council being set up under this Act. This Council has the power to register, provisionally register (Section 22), prescribe training or apprenticeship requirements (Section 5e) and issue practising certificates (Section 5g). What takes the cake is Section 25 that states that any person who practises any form of traditional medicine without first obtaining a practising certificate from the Council “commits an offence liable to a fine of not more than RM30000 and/or imprisonment for up to two years”!

I managed to intervene when the Umno member for Ledang was extolling the benefits of this Act and commending the government for its far-sightedness. Don’t you think, I asked him, that this Act puts a terribly onerous burden on the Director General of Health, who is designated as the Chairman of the Council that gives out practising certificates to the traditional practitioners? If he gives a particular traditional practitioner a practising certificate, it gives the impression that the Ministry of Health recognises and endorses that modality of treatment. If on the other hand, if the the Director General turns down the request for a licence to practise, that practitioner cannot practise legally and is open to all sorts of penalties – surely he will be unhappy with the Director General. Isn’t this a terrible burden to place upon a civil servant, I asked.

The Honourable Member for Ledang seemed a little taken aback. I think the Minister will answer that, he responded. Then, seeing the smiles on our side of the Chamber, he went on to say defensively that we have to make a start somewhere and that the smaller issues can be sorted out as we go. But that is the issue isn’t it – ideally, we should start at the beginning. We should first start monitoring and then registering the traditional practitioners in a non-compulsive manner, and only later certify those modalities that the Ministry is confident about endorsing. Here we are plunging into the deep end by seeking to regulate all traditional medicine modalities from the word go!

I intervened again when YB Tian Chua was speaking – sometimes it is easier to do so than to get the Speaker to recognise one’s intention to speak. Wouldn’t it be better, I asked, for the Ministry to make registration voluntary at this stage. Some of those registered, who the Council is confident about, can be officially certified. The practitioner could then display the Ministry Certification in his place of practice. And the government could tell the people that they should be careful when the traditional practitioner does not display a Health Ministry certification.

Then, looking directly at the Health Minister I said, don’t bite off more than you can chew. The Ministry does not have the expertise to evaluate the numerous different branches of traditional practice that can be found in our multiracial society. Why don’t you take things step by step instead of taking on so much upon yourself? Our Health Minister has extremely good PR – he will listen, seemingly intently and then will nod and write something on his notepad. That’s what he did again on 24 September 2012. My experience is that nothing much results after all the intensive listening and note-taking.

The proper thing to do would have been to stand down the Act to see if some of the points raised should be incorporated. But this did not happen. The Act was put to vote on 26 September 2012 and duly passed. 147 is definitely larger than 75. There was little that we, Pakatan MPs could do to prevent this ill-advised Act from becoming law!

So let’s turn to the “dream” analysis part – what does the tabling of this Act reveal about our government? First of all, it shows that they have extremely poor planning capacities – could they not have formulated a less ambitious and less intrusive piece of legislation. Another feature this Act reveals is the over-riding desire to CONTROL. The passage of this Act criminalises the practice of traditional medicine unless one registers with the Council and receives a practising certificate. Doesn’t this Act also show that there was not much consultation – or if there was, it was for show only? I cannot imagine the various bodies of traditional practitioners agreeing to submit to the Council.

A profound lack of “insight” is also revealed in this entire episode. The term ‘insight’, when used in psychiatry, refers to the awareness on the part of the patient that something isn’t quite right with his mind. The more severely ill psychiatric patients – those suffering from psychosis – lack insight. Unfortunately for us all, our government too seems to lack insight – it does not seem aware how flawed this particular Act is! This lack of insight, of course leads to the determination to push through the Bill in its unchanged form. If you can’t see the shortcomings of the Bill, you would not see any reason to modify it, would you?

So where does this all leave us? A poorly conceptualised Act has been bulldozed through the Dewan Rakyat. But laws can be reformulated when there is sanity in the seat of power. So what happened on 26 September 2012 is not a calamity. But the inability to plan properly, the overriding urge to control completely, arrogance, the inability to take advice and the total lack of insight displayed in this episode means that another five years of BN rule would certainly be too costly a price for the Malaysian people! Another five years of BN rule should be avoided! Do vote wisely, and get your friends to do the same! There is just too much at stake!!

Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj is the Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput

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