BORN to a rubber tapper father in Sitiawan, Perak, new Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran’s journey to where he is now has not been an easy one.
It was during his childhood days that he learnt about the hardships of a struggling family, and later during his adulthood, the challenges faced by the working class to live day by day.
“I’ve had a very hard life, living in an estate with no water and electricity in the early years.
“When other children went to play after school, my brothers and I had to look after cows, goats, pigs and also clean up the containers used to gather latex,” he says.
“When my father went to town, we also had to go and help sell a lot of things, including newspapers and ice-cream.”
Yet, despite being poor, there was always food on the table, recalls the 61-year-old who was admitted as Barrister-at-Law at Lincoln’s Inn in London in 1982.
“My mother, who was a child bride and got married when she was 13, never stinged on food. There’s always food for the family and for visitors.”
It has always been his childhood ambition to be a lawyer, adds Kulasegaran.
“I’ve always felt that we can do more as a lawyer and coincidentally, it gave me the lift in the political arena over time.”
Q: How long have you been involved in politics?
A: The first time I became aware of politics was in 1969. I was about 12 then. I was selling nasi lemak and thosai when I was stopped by the police on May 13. They confronted me, asking why I was up and about before taking me to the police station for questioning.
Realising that they had nothing on me, they sent me home.
However, they took away all the nasi lemak I had, so when I got home, I got my ears pulled by my mother.
It was my first ever confrontation with the police, and I got an unfair treatment.
It was also then that I remember vividly seeing the DAP flag. I was impressed with the colours and the fact that it had a rocket on it.
Returning from London after completing my studies in 1982, I was practically on the fringes of party politics and became active in the 90s.
It was also because of law that I got involved in politics.
I’ve handled a lot of “downtrodden” cases. For example, labour cases where people’s claims are worth between RM1,500 and RM2,000.
Nobody wants to take these up because it’s not a “lawyer’s fee” kind of job.
I go to the small claims court for less than RM5,000. I take it as a matter of principle and with pride that either my office or I will assist. It’s not about the money.
But to help these people, there must also be a revolutionary change in our country’s system.
And in my 35 years as a lawyer, it has made me realised that going back to basics is the most important thing, which means you must never forget your grassroots. Without them, you are nobody.
It was in 1995 when I first contested in the general election for the Canning state assembly seat, where I lost. I was 35.
Then came the Teluk Intan parliamentary by-election in 1997 where I sprung back, having won in an otherwise unelectable seat back then.
I then contested the Ipoh Barat parliamentary constituency in 1999 where I lost before winning again in the following general election in 2004.
I must also put on record to thank former DAP deputy secretary P. Patto for bringing me into the party.
> Did you ever imagine that you will become a minister?
I always knew that political life has its challenges. In 2008, I told my party leaders in Perak that we could form the state government but it was a long shot in Putrajaya.
But it was just a matter of time, with the right alignment and the right persons and obviously, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad joining us was the one gift that brought this miracle.
> How will your experience as an Opposition leader help you with your ministerial duties?
Being an Opposition MP then, it has been an enormous help that over the years we have faced debates, frustrations and times when we could not solve problems – that had driven us to strive harder.
I have had ministers who would debate me in Parliament but would tell me outside that they could not help as the system was as such, and that they needed to toe the line.
After some time, I gained this daringness to be more critical. Some ministers even came asking about the questions that I would ask in Parliament before the sessions started.
This was an indirect acknowledgment that they feared me.
I never asked for any personal favours and I don’t intend to during my stint in Putrajaya.
It’s always about the interest of the public and Malaysians.
I have now been an MP for nearly 18 years. Since back when Dr Mahathir was Prime Minister till now that I’m part of his Cabinet, I’ve not seen a Prime Minister as hard-working as him.
He is always early and this made us to be on our toes all the time.
In the ministry, I always tell the people that the “air-conditioned people” make decisions for the “non air-conditioned people”.
But the “non air-conditioned” people are the ones who are providing the monies and paying the “air-conditioned people”.
I tell them not to forget all the common workers. They are our bread and butter.
It has been about more than two weeks, I try to be as approachable as near possible to everyone who comes to communicate with me in my office. I wish I can do more.
> What are the primary issues that you hope to resolve?
As a whole, we have the Pakatan Harapan model. This is the principle that constantly reminds us to fulfil our promises.
I am proud that all Cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament have agreed to stick to the letter of Pakatan’s promises to be implemented.
In regards to my ministry, it’s my personal wish to see every citizen, working or otherwise, to be covered by the safety net of Social Security Organisation (Socso).
We are now working towards this.
Everyone who feels scared of going to hospitals and fearing about money, there’s always an insurance, a common pool by the people to look after you.
> Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin recently remarked that the rehiring programme for illegal foreign workers will end this month and this could in a way, cause problems for some sectors that need manpower. What’s your take on this?
The rehiring and reassigning of illegal foreign workers have been going on for some time. We really need to take stock of the situation.
We cannot go with it indefinitely as there must be a balance between demand and supply but priority must always be for Malaysian workers.
> It was reported on an online news portal recently that you said the Government had no plans to raise wages for workers due to the high national debt. How will this work out to get more locals to take up jobs that are often taken up by foreign workers?
There has been a slight misreporting on this. Wages are something very important and we are working on reviewing the minimum wage. It is now in its final stage. After the review, we will see what can be done.
On the national debt – we didn’t expect it to be that high, with the amount almost doubled than what we have expected.
This is no doubt a constraint and a challenge but we believe that it is surmountable.
> How will sectors that rely heavily on foreign workers – like security guards and plantation workers – be impacted by the review on hiring foreign workers?
There’s no doubt that certain sectors need foreign workers, like security guards as mentioned.
This is considered a needs-based category. So if there are needs for security guards or workers in plantations or estates, we will still allow the hiring to go on.
Let’s be frank, these are areas where Malaysians do not want to work in. We will continue with it, we are not going to slash down the numbers and send them away. We are not going to do that and we must make this clear.
And at the same time, there need to be appropriate skill training for locals to make them go up the job ladder. This is more important.
For security guards or plantation workers, there’s not much of a skill needed. And again, this is a comparison of apple and oranges.
We are not saying to not to allow foreign workers to come work here at all.
Let’s also not forget, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Malaysians working overseas. What do you do with them?
There are a lot working in China, Australia and in the US; they have gone there because of their capability to earn more.
Are we going to tell them that the countries will not employ them?
In the global level, it has become a borderless village. So, live and let live.
One concern is that by having foreign workers, it will suppress local wages so, that must stop.
For example, we get a good foreign worker to replace a local. What will happen to the local? The local is getting RM4,000 but the foreign worker gets RM2,500, and can work morning, afternoon and night. Is this okay?
If so, we can get thousands of them to come in but this will not be fair.
For the 3D (dangerous, dirty and difficult) jobs, I can understand. But appropriately, we should give them higher salary.
It’s all about demand and supply.
Our concerns are in the middle ground and lower end, where locals will be willing to work if the right salaries are paid. We can also encourage skill training.
> The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) has also called upon you to end the interference by your ministry’s top officials in its administration. How will you address this?
I have read about this allegation. I will call all three parties – the employers, unions and the ministry officials – for an open discussion on this.
As you know, I am against all that. I think the formation of unions should be encouraged, the union industry must grow and more workers should become union members.
> A reader recently called for a review on the position of the Industrial Court chairmen to extend their term.
Yes, currently, their terms are for two years, we are going to review it.
The renewal of their contracts is all needs-based, over and above that they can dispose of cases.
I’ve visited the court last week, they are coming up with new methods to dispose of cases as early as possible without compromising the judicial system.
The department has also appointed a task force of experienced industry court chairmen to deal with the backlog of cases. If they can perform, I don’t see why they cannot be extended.
They are also allowing voices to be recorded during proceedings, which will then be printed out in black and white. This is progressive. The local courts need to learn about this.
> Another issue that often crops up is regarding undergraduates who cannot get the job they studied so hard for. How do you plan to resolve this?
I recently visited the Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis (ILMIA) in Cyberjaya where they conduct studies on how to reduce the mismatch of jobs.
I was told that a lot of graduates are unemployable.
What is currently in demand are graduates from science, technology and innovative-related courses, but we are not producing enough of them.
Other sectors that are not in demand but are being produced so there is a mismatch. This needs to be addressed.
They will be coming out with their findings and what actions that need to be taken. In South Korea and Japan, their industry depends on institutes of this nature but in Malaysia, many people have not even heard about it.
Personally, I feel that universities need to be more flexible in preparing courses for jobs that are in high demand.
> Brain drain is still an issue for many states, including Perak, whereby we are losing our youths to bigger cities. How do you aim to resolve this?
There’s no denying that many states in the country are net exporters of human capital, Perak is not an exception.
It’s due to the failure of the previous governments that are unable to get enough industries to keep the youths here so this is a challenge of the present Government.
Malaysians either work in Kuala Lumpur or in Penang, as though there are only these two places. At the higher level, we must dispose of industries and have them be located elsewhere other than in the Klang Valley or Penang.
I would urge public listed companies, particularly those that are from the state to base their headquarters to be based back in their hometown. They should also employ local workers.
> Are there any plans to attract back Malaysian talents that are currently working abroad?
We will do a study on the incentives that we can implement to attract them back.
Personally, I feel those working overseas in Singapore, US and Australia to use their talents to come home, invest and be part of the engine of growth. We really do not want to waste any good talent to other countries.
> What are your hopes moving forward in this new Malaysia?
For the short term, I want to see us fulfil our promises and to implement our Pakatan manifesto.
For the mid-term, we want to see them fully implemented and for the final term, to make Malaysia a place where everyone can live and enjoy and earn handsome wages.
With the resources at our disposal and with competition, I can see this happening.