IT was almost 1.30pm and the aides of Human Resources Minister Datuk S. Saravanan kept looking at their watches nervously.
His political secretary Khamarulazlan Mohamad Hanafiah apologetically told this writer that his boss was already on the way to the Original Penang Kayu Nasi Kandar in Bangsar.
“Today is super busy. He rushed from Parliament to the MIC headquarters for a meeting. After lunch with you and it’s off to Parliament again,” he said.
Finally, the MIC deputy president arrived and we rolled up our sleeves quickly to tuck into the food.
But his two mobile phones were ringing incessantly. He struggled to answer the text messages.
“I get between 800 and 1,000 messages a day. I try my best to answer all of them.
“This is a tough time for all Malaysian workers as they either get retrenched, have had their pay cut and most are feeling very insecure. I don’t blame the employers as they are also struggling. Nobody wants to let their staff go or worse, to close shop.”
He said ordinary Malaysian workers were more concerned with putting food on the table for their family “and not about politics or general election”.
Saravanan doesn’t have a polished personality. He’s known for his combative style and is more comfortable with his grassroots supporters.
“I came from a hard life. I understand the wage earners well. My father was a rubber tapper and when he passed away, I had to take care of my family as I was the only son. My mum was a housewife. We suffered great financial difficulties at our Jalan Raja Muda home in KL.
“All my hopes of furthering my studies were dashed. I had to work and study part-time and you know that’s not easy,” he said.
Saravanan was a school prefect, an active eloquent speaker and president of the Indian Youth Club at SMK Jalan Temerloh.
But all hopes of higher education ended after that. He had to take a few jobs but said he then settled as an administrative clerk at Maika Holdings in MIC headquarters.
“I was the office boy at MIC but whenever I was in India, the politicians always tell their listeners that I was a tea boy at MIC. I could never understand it,” he chuckled.
Not many are aware that he was a policeman for a while but he opted for politics full-time.
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the minister has worked doubly hard as job losses in the country have increased by 42% year-on-year for the last first quarter (Q1 2020), according to the Social Security Organisation’s (Socso) Employment Insurance System (EIS).
In addition, the unemployment rate is forecast to hit 4% in 2020 compared to 3.2% during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and 3.7% during the 2008 financial crisis.
Meanwhile, the retrenchment figures are expected to be similar to those during the 1997 Asian financial crisis due to pre-emptive measures of the Employment Retention Programme (ERP) and Wage Subsidy Programme (PSU) taken by the government to prevent mass lay-offs.
While frontliners, especially the Health Ministry medical workers with the police and Rela members, have been rightly commended, less is said of the Human Resources officers who also worked quietly and diligently without the accolades.
But the challenges facing Malaysia are not just on the health of its people. The economy and the subsequent loss of jobs have an equally devastating effect on Malaysians.
While we acknowledge the many wins that have been recognised, the Human Resources Ministry has been quietly leading the charge to ensure that Malaysians remain employed.
The ministry also helped the unemployed find jobs since the announcement of the two economic stimulus packages of Prihatin and Penjana.
Saravanan co-chairs the National Employability Task Force with Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz.
The MP for Tapah gets enthusiastic when he talks about the Penjana HRDF initiative which was launched on June 22.
The scheme is a new economic recovery initiative, emphasising on reskilling and upskilling trainings to enhance the employability of the unemployed.
“We have managed to get some 15,215 job seekers employed, and are expected to meet the target of 40,000 employed by December this year.
“It has not been an easy task as many employers did not want to commit to hiring jobless or retrenched workers. I called them up personally to get them committed,” said Saravanan.
The good news is Malaysia’s unemployment rate has declined by 0.4 percentage points month-on-month in June 2020 to 4.9% from a record high of 5.3% in May 2020, the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) reported on Aug 7.
Saravanan said he had lengthy discussions with Human Resources Development Fund CEO Shahul Hameed on how to train and upskill Malaysians, especially school leavers and university graduates.
“I know the importance of improving ourselves and to have training to make ourselves marketable.
“Paper qualifications are not enough these days and training alone isn’t sufficient if no one gets a job after training,” Saravanan added.
Said Shahul: “The boss is very consistent on this. He values training and he often shares his own practical experiences with us.”
Saravanan has consistently called out employers who have taken the easy way out by hiring foreigners when Malaysians could easily have done better if only they were given the opportunity.
“Malaysians seem to be addicted to foreign labour. Malaysians complain about the increasing number of foreigners but also complain when the government makes it tougher to allow foreigners to come in as workers,” he said.
Saravanan said he had not given any “real interview” since he assumed the ministerial post as he wanted to concentrate on his job, which he described as a “hot seat”.
“The Human Resources Minister’s post has been unnecessarily politicised in the past. I don’t want all that. No one should play with the welfare of the Malaysian workers,” he said.
Saravanan said he had been questioned for hiring non-MIC members as his aides.
“Lan (Khamarulazlan) is not from MIC, for sure, and my press secretary Norshafawati Wahid was from TV3. She speaks excellent Mandarin and Cantonese.
“Shahul is Indian Muslim and not an MIC member. I have also appointed Malays and Chinese to advisory posts in HRDF.
“At the end of the day, we are all Malaysians,” he added.
As a member of the minority, Saravanan said he often received more scrutiny from his colleagues who represent the rest of Malaysians including the majority, meaning that small mistakes were more likely to be caught and amplified, and having to continually be “twice as good”, twice as smart, twice as dependable, and twice as talented to receive the accolades that were showered on those who did less.
“I want to be judged for the ministry’s achievements, especially acts of service and standards of excellence as part of their job.
“I rarely ask for press coverage and for sure do not give weekly press conferences,” he said.
Saravanan, however, said he wanted to speak up, in conjunction with the National Day’s theme of “Malaysia Prihatin” (Malaysia Cares).
The theme was chosen in recognition of the caring, determined and patient nature of Malaysians in facing the trials and tribulations posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We are often asked what Merdeka means to us, but there are times maybe we should delve deeper and ask what Merdeka should mean to us.
“As we reflect on our blessings to have been born in a country as beautiful as Malaysia, do we ask ourselves whether we really live in a country where anything is possible and anyone, no matter our economic background, heritage, culture, race or religion, has the opportunity to succeed? How do we treat the most vulnerable among us?”
As an MIC leader, he said he understood the size of the Indian community today was less than the foreigners, but he stressed the measure of a civilisation was how a country treated its weakest members.
“Even when I took part in school debates, I remembered using this quote, ‘The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member’.”
Saravanan said his Tapah parliamentary constituency had a sizeable Orang Asli electorate and that he was always thankful for their continuous support.
Malaysia, he said, was made up of all races and religions, and that no one should forget that.
“We would not have achieved independence without the roles of all races. Our faith and destiny is the same.”
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