Minimum wage is about dignity

Fair play: A minimum wage should apply to all human beings who work, regardless of what passports they hold. — AFP

MALAYSIA has the fifth highest number of public holidays in the world. This is all well and good, but in this newspaper business, we lowly columnists are often forced by our harsh editors to submit our pieces well ahead of holidays so that they can go and sit on a beach somewhere.

(Editor’s note: Nope, no beach in sight.)

And as everyone knows, lots can happen in Malaysia in a few days. This being the case, I apologise for the hurried nature of this article. And if it becomes stale between writing and publication, blame my editor.

There are two things I want to speak about this week. The first is this business about teaching in English in Sarawak. According to a news portal report, the Education Ministry stated in a written parliamentary reply that it was against the use of English as the medium of instruction in government schools in Sarawak.

One of the grounds of this stand is that such a move is unconstitutional as Bahasa Malaysia is the official language as stated in Article 152 of the Federal Constitution. According to this article, all activities by public authorities (which includes schools) have to be conducted in BM.

However, the thing is, there are special provisions for Sabah and Sarawak in the constitution. The one most relevant here is Article 161, which states that both the Borneo states are free to use English until 10 years after Malaysia Day. But after that date, if there are going to be any changes, these must be accepted by the two states via their legislature.

So, what this means is that even if there are federal laws making BM the lingua franca of schools in Malaysia, this can only apply in Sabah and Sarawak if they accept it.

Regardless what laws and policies have been made by Parliament or the federal government, with regard to the use of English, if there is no Sarawak state legislation accepting this, then it does not apply.

The question is, of course, whether Sarawak has ever made such a state law. If not, then in my opinion, the Education Ministry is mistaken and Sarawak can teach in English if it wants to.

The second thing I want to discuss is the minimum wage. RM1,050. Seriously? This is so low. The cost of living is insanely high and this figure seems very small.

Naturally, the government will say that the economy is in poor shape and this is what is feasible. I’m no economist, but will a decent minimum wage cause businesses to go bankrupt? Are our businesses now so close to collapsing that by having higher wage bills, we will have homeless CEOs begging for spare change to make their BMW payments?

I don’t know. What I do know is how annoyed I felt at a totally callous comment I heard on the wireless this morning.

I can’t remember the name of the person who said it, but this dude said the minimum wage would only help foreign workers because they were the ones earning less than RM1,050.

And then he went on to say that this is bad because all these foreigners would just remit more money back home and this would be bad for the nation. Wow. That’s a great argument. Let us not give foreigners decent pay because all they will do is send it home to help their families.

A minimum wage is about allowing people to live with a modicum of dignity. It should reflect the realities of the day and not be merely symbolic. And it should apply to all human beings who work, regardless of what passports they hold.

Azmi Sharom ( is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.


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