We can do better

  • Community
  • Sunday, 04 May 2014

The increase in gross domestic product, per capita income and foreign investment must translate to better education and health facilities for the people and decent wages for workers.

WE just celebrated Labour Day three days ago.

To some of us, it is just another holiday. Shopping centres have Labour Day sales, housing developers have Labour Day carnivals.

The bank union had a blood donation drive and collected more than 100 pints of blood in Kuching and Sibu. MTUC had a Labour Day rally.

Most took advantage of the holiday to do whatever it is that people do on holidays.

Perhaps it is useful to remind ourselves that Malaysia started observing Labour Day 42 years ago in 1972 to commemorate the contributions of ordinary workers to the country following an announcement by then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.

After four decades, we should also ask ourselves whether our contributions are equitably recognised.

Have we earned our rightful place in the nation?

Yes, much has improved over the last 42 years. We have moved from a low-income, high-poverty country to a high-middle-income economy. We are embarking on our next transformation to become a high-income, developed country with quality of life for everyone.

“We want everyone to be rich” was the clarion call of Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and CEO of Pemandu, tasked with the implementation of the initiatives to transform Malaysia into a high-income country by 2020.

According to him: “Our infrastructure has increased by leaps and bounds. Roads and highways have been built and traverse all parts of the country.

“Instead of the village shop, we now have modern retail outlets — supermarkets, hypermarkets, shopping complexes, malls and entertainment outlets.”

In recent years, we have moved to a less authoritarian rule towards greater freedom with the repeal of the Internal Security Act, establishing clear rights for peaceful assembly and affirming the rights of online expression and social media liberties, among others.

No doubt there will always be some who feel that such changes are never enough, but isn’t that the whole point?

Change is a process. If we were perfect to be able to change everything, what is there left to change, going forward?

Of course change must be for the better.

“Our income as a nation increased 64 times over the last 42 years compared with population growth of just 1.6 times so per capita income went up 25 times, a considerable achievement.

“Foreign direct investment flows in 2011 at RM33bil was 150 times more than that in 1970. Incidence of poverty has been brought down from nearly half of the population to less than four for every 100 people in the country. Life expectancy has increase to 74.1 years and a 80% drop in the infant mortality rate to seven per 1,000 live births reflect vast improvement in health levels.”

So despite the trepidation of Malaysians 42 years ago, one can say that we have succeeded.

Yes, we could have done better, but then we can always do better.

There is one area where I must put a damper on Idris’ optimism — his claim “that one of the progress is that we have moved to an extensive social welfare system e.g. free primary and secondary schools, virtually free public health system, and one of the lowest consumer prices for fuel, LPG cooking gas, sugar, electricity, flour, gas, and so on with high subsidies from the Government.”

To me, that is not progress.

If after 42 years we become dependent on government subsidies, it means that we have not really empowered Malaysians to earn a decent living.

We must teach a man to fish, not give him fish. Of course we must make sure that there is fish for the ordinary man to catch. We cannot continue to let the rich trawl all the fish.

I have often lamented that trade unions and workers are sidelined in our pursuit of economic development and growth. This has resulted in greater income disparity and seen wages level lagging behind productivity growth.

I am pleased that recently this has changed (slowly) — implementation of minimum wage is most welcomed so is the minimum retirement age at 60 for the private sector.

Next we must modernise the Trade Unions Act to empower trade unions to be able to more effectively represent workers and negotiate for decent wages.

We must make the TUA less restrictive. If we can repeal the ISA and enhance press freedom surely we must remove the arbitrary powers of the Trade Union Department.

After all trade union rights is a fundamental human right. Without effective trade unions, collective bargaining is nothing more than collective begging. We certainly don’t want all workers to be stuck at the minimum wage.

One area that we can certainly do better in is the number of schools. While population went up by 1.6 times, the number of schools increased by only 0.96 times.

Unless schools have become much bigger (not a good thing), this means that the student to school ratio has actually increased.

It means that schools still have two sessions, exactly the same situation when I started Form 1 in 1973 in the afternoon session. I only reached home from school when it was already dark. In Form 2, I was in the morning session meaning that I had to leave home for school in the dark! First bell was 7.05am.

Disappointingly this has not changed. My son, who is now in Form 2, still has to leave home for school in the dark! This must change. Education is the most fundamental development and empowerment tool.

The 6400% increase in gross domestic product, 2400% increase in per capita income, 15,500 increase in foreign investment must translate to better education and health facilities for the people and decent wages for workers.

We must also not forget the environment. Here I read with trepidation that up to 170,000ha of forest are cut down annually since at least 2006.

That means that 1.36 million hectares have been cut down the past eight years. That is already 13.6% of our total forested area of 10.34 million hectares. So how much is actually left after 50 years of the timber industry?

  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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