While we have much to be thankful for this Merdeka, we have our work cut out for us, writes Anil Netto.
So we are on the threshold of Merdeka once again. The first Merdeka since the arrival of the new Malaysia on 9 May — or as some would say, Merdeka 2.0.
Freedom from kleptocracy; freedom from oppressive rule. Much reason to celebrate. There are only a few other precious occasions in our nation’s history when we may have had reason to celebrate with similar great joy and jubilation: the liberation from Japanese Occupation at the end of World War Two, the first Merdeka — and now our second collective liberation.
It is the beginning of a new journey, a new chapter in the life of our nation. We have taken a huge step in rising above the barriers of race and religion and in forging a new sense of pride in being Malaysian. It is a sense of genuine patriotism in the best sense of the word — care for the country and its people and our common destiny — not the patriotism that is the refuge of scoundrels and bigots. There is also palpable relief that we have been spared from impending economic ruin and bankruptcy.
The battle against corruption has begun with earnest. The arrival of that RM1bn yacht was highly symbolic. But hundreds of billions of ringgit have been ferreted abroad over the years — and that will be a lot harder to recover. Still, if we have the resolve and determination, nothing is impossible.
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The anti-Fake News Act has been repealed. But oppressive laws like the Sedition Act and those that allow detention without trial eg the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Prevention of Crime Act remain on the statute books. These laws must be quickly repealed.
It was encouraging to hear the foreign minister saying that half a dozen international human rights treaties would be ratified. Immediate steps must be taken to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the 1951 Refugee Convention and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Some institutional reforms have taken place to make various commissions more independent of the executive.
We have a new respected chief justice and attorney general. Add that to new faces in the cabinet, who appear highly qualified. But qualifications are one thing. It is equally, if not more important, to have a heart for the suffering of the people — and their Common Home, the natural heritage.
If we have that empathy and that sense of solidarity with the people and Nature, then we will be careful about how we spend our national budget. Development policies must, therefore, prioritise the needs of the poor and the marginalised and their surroundings to enhance their quality of life, their need for green spaces too.
So far, the new government has received generally favourable ratings by two thirds of the people in an opinion survey to mark the administration’s first 100 days in power. If you speak to many, especially among the urban middle or upper-middle class, they will confirm this sentiment.
Still, there is one crucial area that the new government should be mindful of. The Merdeka Centre survey showed that 68% of those with a monthly income exceeding RM7,000 felt that the country was heading in the right direction while only 47% of those earning below RM2,000 felt the same way. Similarly, 63% of those earning more than RM7,000 felt satisfied with the government’s management of the economy while just 55% of those earning below RM2,000 were satisfied.
This may be linked to the 55% of respondents who felt dissatisfied with the cost of living, despite the repeal of the GST. The burden of the higher cost of living is felt more by the lower-income group, who spend proportionately more of their income on essential items and have little or no savings.
So the new administration will have to focus on the needs of the bottom 40% especially – a preferential option for the poor, if you like – in particular, the impact of higher house prices, higher food prices and the lack of quality public transport, healthcare and education at affordable prices for the lower-income group. How should our taxation system be reformed to promote greater solidarity and address the concerns of the lower-income group? What can we do to reduce the cost of natural, nourishing food?
And what about those guest workers and refugees and their families who toil in our midst, hidden from view? What happens to them when they need medical treatment or their children need education?
So while we have much to be thankful for this Merdeka, we have our work cut out for us. As a nation, our earnest collective prayers have been answered and we have been spared economic ruin, perhaps even an erosion of our sovereignty. Indeed, we have been blessed.
Now let us rise from the ashes, strengthen our bonds of solidarity and do all we can to empower the people and protect our common home.
This article first appeared in The Herald weekly.