Face up to the problems and take remedial action


  • Letters
  • Thursday, 05 Sep 2019

THE recent Merdeka Day celebrations in the country and the many video clips on social media of Malaysians living abroad singing patriotic songs with their friends show that there is a strong feeling of love and attachment to our nation. This is not surprising because, despite all its flaws, our country has grown to be more prosperous, healthier and better educated than before. It also has its unique charms that make Malaysians miss home when they are travelling or living abroad, especially when they think about the local food.

While we can be proud of our strengths and confident of becoming a high-income country in the near future, we must also acknowledge that there are social problems in our country.

As pointed out by the World Bank recently, government statistics have failed to capture the true extent of poverty among Malaysian households due to the outdated definition of the poverty line income.

We should be open to admit that there is poverty in the country. Among other factors, poverty is caused by the low wage structure in the country, especially for the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. It is the result of employers having easy access to cheap foreign labour.

Worse is the exploitation of undocumented foreign workers and refugees. It is so widespread that it leads to depressed wages throughout the economy. It undermines the bargaining power of trade unions to fight for wage increases in line with productivity growth. There is no urgency for companies to automate when wages are low.

We hope the present government will act more decisively on undocumented migrant workers and refugees as they are dragging down wage levels. If they are urgently needed by employers to fill their labour shortages, especially in the agricultural smallholdings and plantations or in the construction sector, they should be allowed to work legally with decent wages and other benefits so that their employment does not push down the entire wage structure.

There is also a high level of graduate and youth unemployment due to their unsuitability for the job market. At the same time, thousands of highly educated Malaysians are finding work in Singapore and other countries because the wages are much higher than in Malaysia. As a result of low wages, Malaysia loses a lot of talent to foreign countries.

In line with the concept of shared prosperity, the Federal Government should continue to intervene in the economy to redress the economic imbalances based on real needs, especially in the rural areas.

Most of the basic needs can be addressed at the local level by state governments. The Federal Government can facilitate state action on poverty programmes by making revenue transfers especially to the poorer states so that they can deal with their local problems more efficiently without waiting for the central bureaucracy in faraway Putrajaya to provide the services.

As many have also suggested, revenue transfers to states should be targeted. The states that have forest reserves should be compensated by the federal government to incentivise them to save their natural resources from excessive logging and deforestation, as these activities cause lasting damage to the water catchment areas, natural habitat for wildlife and the ecosystem.

Kedah, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak rely heavily on logging licences for their state coffers. Their development will suffer if they have to stop issuing logging permits in order to comply with national policies on the environment.

These states should be fairly compensated by the Federal Government so that they would have the revenue to develop and reduce the high levels of poverty in the neglected regions.

Lately, racial controversy in education has again evoked heated discussion on what needs to be done to address the concerns of parents on the future of their children.

Most agree that the national education system needs reforms, especially at the primary level, because this is the age when young minds are shaped on their interest in learning and in their attitude towards social responsibility and racial mixing.

It seems the Education Ministry is not allowed to publish student enrolment statistics by race to compare enrolment in national primary schools with national type/vernacular schools. A report from research done by an academic group, however, shows that enrolment at the primary level is becoming highly segregated among the races, with national primary schools being predominantly Malay (over 90%) as a result of non-Malay parents preferring to send their children to the vernacular Chinese schools.

There has also been an exponential growth in private school enrolment while international schools are becoming increasingly popular to families who can afford the high fees.

A more disturbing trend is that well-to-do Malay students are also opting out of national schools to go into professionally-run private tahfiz schools from primary to secondary level while others go into Mara schools and schools run by religious institutions or yayasan, thus isolating themselves completely from the experience of multiracial learning.

The academic research shows that surprisingly, many students from the top private religious schools do well in university and the job market because they get a strong foundation in English, Mathematics, Science and the humanities.

This clearly shows that Malay parents also feel strongly for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects to be taught in schools while at the same time giving their children strong religious instruction.

The national school system from primary to secondary level should be reformed to make it the first choice for parents. Most Malaysians will choose national schools as they are free and often located near the house and therefore preferable compared to paying the heavy cost of private education.

Most parents are not rich and are struggling with the education costs, but they have no choice because they have no confidence in national schools to prepare children for the technology age and global competition.

Studies show that middle class urban families spend a lot on education, putting them under financial stress. Even though by definition they are not in the B40 category, they feel poor.

Banking statistics show that household debt in Malaysia as a ratio to GDP is among the highest in this region. After paying for house mortgage, car loans, medical care and education, families do not have much savings left for retirement and old age. This will become a big issue in a few years as our population is starting to age quite fast.

The government should be open on issues that concern the people. The best way is to empower parliamentary select committees to hold inquiry sittings – like parliaments do in advanced countries – to invite all views from experts, professionals and civil society to contribute their ideas for the legislature to formulate recommendations to the government.

Like in other countries, a report coming from Parliament should include proposals for legislative amendments to address the problems and put pressure on the government to act by introducing the bill for debate and voting in the full house.

Without specific legislative proposals for action, the government will just sit on the report and allow precious time to pass by.

TAN SRI MOHD SHERIFF MOHD KASSIM

Kuala Lumpur

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