THERE has been much food for thought in the last couple of weeks in our country which, incidentally, is known for its high amount of food wastage.
One of the issues that probably whetted the appetite of many critics was the announcement of free breakfast for all 2.7 million pupils in primary schools by Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik.
Although it sounds like a noble idea on the face of it, many wondered why on earth would a government expend so much resources on a large section of pupils who come from rich and comfortable families who can do without this free meal.
For the record, a RM289mil annual budget is already in place under a food scheme for the poor in all schools. This free meal or milk is handed out every school day of the year.
It must be noted that if you do everything for someone irrespective of whether the person deserved it or not, you become an enabler. And going by the Malaysian experience, people tend to get addicted to enablers.
To a certain extent, enabling was a much anticipated political culture for many Malaysians under the previous regime. I believe many of us had thought that this will be a thing of the past. And I am sure we are still hoping that this culture will not rear its ugly head again.
Enabling policies and practices have become an easy way out for most of us. If everything is handed to you on a silver platter and for some, it may inadvertently end up as an incentive for people not to work hard for things. In this context, there is a serious need for our policymakers to review certain handouts that are across the board and not focussed on the needs-based policy which the Pakatan Harapan government had emphasised on during its election campaign.
This could actually save the government lots of money which can be used for other more pressing matters.
There are several programmes or practices in Malaysia that were implemented or being announced without much deliberation. It appears to some that these may be populist approaches that are aimed at winning votes. But this depends on how you look at it.
Many of us thought this “near non-consultation” with stakeholders will be a thing of the past but no, we appear to be stuck in same era. Besides the breakfast for all idea, there are several others that do not make sense or defy societal logic in a nation that is seeing the rich getting richer with a wide disparity in income.
Consider the free 20m3 (amounting to RM11) water per month for all households in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Even a tycoon living in a mansion enjoys this together with a labourer who earns the minimum wage of RM1,100. This, to me, is sheer madness.
Should it not be restricted to say only to a home with a household income of RM5,000 and less?
This can be implemented easily with the readily available database. But being Pakatan Harapan’s promise in Selangor since it took over the state in 2008, I suppose they are worried that they might lose votes.
But it is understood that Selangor is in the process of addressing this unfair practice and is expected to announce a new formula from next year. I reckon they should not wait.
Another national policy that does not make any sense to many is the 7% discount offered to bumiputra house buyers. Is it right for a Malaysian earning a monthly salary of RM20,000 to be given a discount while another earning RM5,000 a month is not given any for buying the same house?
It defies all logic, and a clear example of an affirmative action policy wrongly implemented. I believe this is not the spirit of the article in the Federal Constitution that protects the special rights of the Malays and other bumiputra.
Another practice that is totally unacceptable is the practice of the police and local authorities giving discounts for offenders who fail to settle their summonses as stipulated.
I asked someone who had about 12 outstanding summonses over a period of six years on why he has not settled his dues. “Don’t worry, I am waiting for the discount offer by the police, ” he said.
This is among the most absurd practices that do not make sense. Shouldn’t it be discounts for only those who settle their summonses super early while those who delay payments are penalised? After all, most offenders are those who can afford, driving big cars.
Then came the free breakfast announcement. For some reason that not many Malaysians can fathom, this Minister has been hogging the limelight for the wrong reasons.
From assuming the chairmanship of the International Islamic University of Malaysia to the black shoes for schoolchildren and the introduction of Khat, Maszlee has been the butt of criticism and jokes, accompanied by social media memes that were very uncomplimentary indeed.
Naturally or otherwise, his sudden announcement of free breakfast for all the 2.7 million primary schoolchildren from next year shocked not only Malaysians but also teachers who will be in the frontline when this programme takes shape.
Did the good Minister consult educators, teachers’ unions, parents and all other stakeholders before making the statement? First of all, why on earth should children of high-income parents be given free breakfast?
Based on the annual RM289mil spent currently for poor children, the new plan may triple the cost. No parent of children who were not getting the current aid had complained of being left out, simply because helping only those deserving is the right thing to do.
To be honest, there are a lot of other priorities that need to be addressed in schools urgently. And the money spent on those not in need of this breakfast could be used to provide free tuition and better internet connectivity in schools. Many schools are reporting of poor connectivity in schools at a time when even record books are going to be online from next year.
While the rich kids go for expensive and multiple tuition classes – with some being chauffeured there – those who cannot afford are deprived of this much-needed help. This is a fact in urban and semi-urban schools.
Instead of the free breakfast for the rich schoolchildren, this money could be channelled to the poor kids for free tuition. One suggestion is for the ministry to issue tuition coupons by tying up with registered private tuition centres for those from families with a stipulated household income and below.
Many schools are also without air-conditioning in staff rooms where teachers rest and prepare their lessons before entering the hot and humid classrooms. All have fans apparently but repairs take ages when they fail.
What I am trying to say here is making the classrooms more conducive and comfortable for teaching and learning instead of spending money on those who do not need the help.
Mazslee did say that the idea was copied from Japan but that is a country where schools are not as large as Malaysian ones. There are about 22,000 primary schools with a total of 6.9 million children. This averages out to about 350 in each school, which makes it highly manageable and controlled easily.
Do our schools have the space to accommodate all the children at one go?
Surely there isn’t right now unless it is done in the hall or some open tents. This means additional work and investment involved in making the place conducive and clean for a meal.
Some teachers told me that they could not imagine the logistics of providing 1,000 to 2,000 children with breakfast every morning.
A minor downside to this plan Maszlee should consider is also the risk of duplication (breakfast at home and free breakfast at school). This has the risk of increasing the number of students who are over-weight, paradoxical given the goal is to increase nutrition.
The argument of improving racial unity at that age by having breakfast together is indeed a very weak one. Even if it helps a little, these children will be exposed to the vile racism spread by the politicians in the social media by the time they reach 18 and are ready to vote. This is tantamount to just scratching the surface. There is much more to be done like having a separate subject on culture and unity.
Some people are a wee bit concerned about who will be given the food contracts. Will there be political interference like in the past? A fairly legitimate concern,
which makes people wonder if the introduction is to reward cronies. Malaysians really can’t help having this fear, going by past actions.Sad to say, some of us get this feeling that something is not right in the way some of our politicians and leaders think. The reasons given and the logistics that will be involved do not seem to be logical to carry out such a huge project that is going to entail huge funds.
For Malaysia to become a nation of beautiful minds, you don’t need free meals. There are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher. These three stalwarts should teach them young to embrace pluralism and multiculturalism and accept each other, not merely tolerate each other.
Like what the famous writer and author Mark Twain said: “A fully belly is little worth where the mind is starved.”
K. Parkaran was a deputy editor at The Star and producer at Aljazeera TV. The views expressed here are solely his own.