This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 21, 2019 – October 27, 2019.
Budget 2020 — Pakatan Harapan’s second — has been tabled and in many ways, the stakes are higher this time.
As we enter greater global economic and geopolitical turmoil, there is an urgent need for Malaysia to ensure future growth that is both sustainable and equitable. The best way to do this is to deliver on our manifesto promises and invest in the people.
The latest budget tabled by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng is a step in this direction. It is something we can build on for a better and fairer future for all Malaysians.
Jobs and wages
It is good that Budget 2020 focuses on my mantra, as PH Youth Leader, when we campaigned for the 14th general election: jobs, jobs, jobs.
The provisions in the budget to increase high-quality employment opportunities for locals (particularly graduates, women and apprentices) as well as to reduce our dependency on foreign labour are most welcome.
I also welcome plans to review the Employment Act 1955, including to increase maternity leave and extend overtime eligibility. The government must also take heed of gender discrimination as well as the research of scholars like Lee Hwok Aun and Muhammed Abdul Khalid, who found evidence of racial discrimination in private sector hiring.
Reform of labour laws should not be done piecemeal but holistically through an employment laws reform commission involving the government, the Malaysian Employers Federation and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress.
Separately, the proposed increase in the monthly minimum wage to RM1,200 in urban areas is positive. This proves that PH is on track to deliver its pledge to increase the minimum wage to RM1,500 by 2023.
Still, it is very far from the “living wage” concept proposed by Bank Negara Malaysia in 2016, including RM2,700 for individuals living in Kuala Lumpur.
Everyone should get behind this. IDEAS Malaysia (a pro-market think tank) has called for a tax credit scheme to encourage companies to increase the salaries of their lowest-earning employees — there is definitely merit in this. Government procurement can also be designed to favour companies that are committed to achieving a living wage.
A fairer gig economy
Lately, there has been great controversy over the so-called gig economy, including how to protect its workers.
California recently passed landmark legislation requiring ride-hailing companies to hire drivers as employees rather than independent contractors.
This will mean that such workers will receive labour protection and benefits like unemployment insurance, overtime, minimum wage and the right to unionise. It is perhaps time Malaysia considered passing a similar law.
It is worth noting that the salary of Malaysian workers lags behind that of their peers in benchmark economies. The low-wage growth model is archaic and no longer works. It does nobody any good in the long run. The quality and productivity of our workers will increase if they are paid better.
It is true that businesses should not be strangled by red tape. But workers should not be left to fend for themselves. Dealing with IR4.0 does not require a return to the exploitative practices of the First Industrial Revolution.
PH’s challenge is to create opportunities and safeguard the interests of job seekers, job holders and job creators in Malaysia — it can be done.
Sustainable public transport
The move towards targeted fuel subsidies also means that efforts to ramp up public transport must go into overdrive.
The revival of major infrastructure projects like MRT3 in a transparent and more cost-efficient manner will help close the MRT system’s loop in the Klang Valley.
I welcome the provision of 500 electric buses. Indeed, we ought to prioritise “green” public transport solutions to address pollution and climate change, the impact of which we in Malaysia know only too well.
A reasonable housing policy
The government has decided to lower the foreign ownership threshold for residential properties to RM600,000. In my constituency of Setiawangsa, a house of that value is not luxurious but the mainstay of the M40 group, including young professionals.
Indeed, as Chang Kim Loong of the National House Buyers Association has argued, this proposal will likely not encourage developers to build affordable housing.
The government should refocus on encouraging the building of affordable housing in the RM300,000 ceiling bracket in the urban areas.
Innovative ideas that can lower building costs, especially those that are environmentally sustainable, should also be incentivised.
There is also a need for the government to address not only inter-ethnic but also intra-ethnic inequality in Malaysia, especially in the Malay and bumiputera community.
The anomalies in Amanah Saham Bumiputera (ASB) and Tabung Haji are proof that there is a growing gap between the rich and poor bumiputeras.
Based on ASB’s 2018 annual report, a total of 7.4 million (or 76.92%) hold unit sizes of below RM5,000. Only 0.24% hold unit sizes of RM500,001 and above.
However, 9.15% of the unit holders have subscribed for 81.83% of total units or more than RM127.5 billion.
If we were to apply the Gini coefficient — a gauge of economic inequality where the lower the score the better — to ASB, the score would be 0.84, in sharp contrast to Malaysia’s, whose score fell from 0.513 in 1970 to 0.399 in 2016.
Similarly, 50% of the funds in Tabung Haji’s savings accounts come from only 1.3% of its contributors. According to media reports, a single individual contributed a staggering RM190 million!
The government could thus consider measures like prioritising the reinvestment of ASB dividends for accounts that are below the investment limit of RM200,000 because these make up the majority. Currently, accounts are still permitted to collect dividends that can be reinvested on top of the RM200,000 cap.
Tabung Haji should also return to its roots as a savings fund for the haj at a reasonable rate. This year, the cost of a basic haj package was around RM22,900 while the subsidy given by Tabung Haji was RM12,920. So, those who wish to perform the haj would only need to save RM9,980. Priority should be given to those saving to perform the haj, not to the elite for cosy investment.
Our conception of the New Economic Policy and, indeed, the bumiputera agenda, should shift towards a needs-based paradigm.
Nobody denies the good both have done. But indiscriminately handing out benefits based on race will not move the community forward. Indeed, it will simply exacerbate the socioeconomic divide within our ranks, to the detriment of the entire country.
T20 Malays must be trained and prepared to compete with the other races and globally. In the meantime, support must be provided to Malaysia’s urban poor, farmers and workers, most of whom are Malays and bumiputeras.
Doing this will be crucial to the government realising its vision of creating “shared prosperity”. The latter will not happen without the former.
Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad is Keadilan member of parliament for Setiawangsa and was a member of the parliamentary special select committee for the budget. He has written several books in Malay and in English.
During a recent interview with Bloomberg, KEADILAN president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim described Malaysia’s latest bout with the haze as a form of “ecological warfare”.
He also called for outrage on the part of Malaysians, for the companies that were allegedly responsible for the forest fires in Indonesia which caused it to be held accountable – regardless of whether they are from Malaysia, Indonesia or other countries.
At the same time, youth all over the world—including in Malaysia—have taken to the streets as part of the “Global Climate Strike” inspired by the teenage activist Greta Thunberg.
Anwar’s comments and the youthful climate strikers share a common thread.
They are both telling us the same thing: protecting the environment and addressing climate change have become existential, mainstream political issues.
Anyone who still feels that this is an elite, fringe or Western-driven phenomenon is courting disaster. Neither can it be the flavour of the month.
We only need to look at the real suffering that the weeks of haze have caused Malaysians regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status to see how this affects us all.
Let us also not forget the UKM study which showed that the 2013 haze caused our country RM1.57bil in healthcare and loss of income opportunities. We can only imagine what the bill in 2019 will be like.
Sustainability is inextricably linked with economic progress: we cannot have one without the other.
There have been many suggestions of how ordinary Malaysians can do their part to reduce climate change, including everything from using less single-use plastic to taking public transportation more.
These are all worthy ideas that we ought to adopt if we can.
But ultimately, what is needed is for governments to lead the way by their policies and actions.
Malaysian leaders and their counterparts elsewhere cannot demand that their people change their lifestyles without first taking a good, hard look at their own.
There are some things that the Pakatan Harapan administration can consider towards greater sustainability, such as making government buildings energy efficient, whether federal, state or local government.
Malaysia has a decade-old Green Building Index (GBI). All government-owned buildings should strive to be on it by a certain deadline – say end-2024.
Measures to prevent wastage of resources like water and electricity in such facilities should be enforced and stepped up. Rainwater harvesting must be expanded extensively.
The government’s fleet of vehicles – including those used by Ministers should move to energy-efficient vehicles (EEVs). More needs to be done to facilitate the use of electric vehicles.
The Cabinet has reportedly approved an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (EECA) to be tabled at Parliament later this year. This should be done: my Dewan Rakyat colleagues and I look forward to debating and passing it.
Encouraging recycling is also a good measure but we must realise that many people find the process confusing and opaque.
When I was a student in London, households are simply required to sort their waste into recyclables and non-recyclables. But in some local councils in Malaysia, waste separation is complicated and as a result ineffective. Hence, simplifying recycling practices is something authorities should look into.
Next, law enforcement is key. As per Anwar’s call, those who damage our environment must be brought to justice without fear or favour.
Cooperation with our neighbours to fight forest fires and other climate change phenomena must increase. Nations must be willing to coordinate with each other for the common good. We may find arguing about where did rendang originate from to be funny, but the debate about who is responsible for the haze actually cost lives.
Sustainability has to be at the core of Malaysia’s agriculture. But it must be adopted at all levels.
For instance, the bulk of oil palm, not only in our country but globally, is grown by smallholders – some 40% according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Both the public and private sector as well as civil society must work together to ensure that smallholders can adopt sustainable agrarian practices that are both effective as well as affordable. There’s no way we can make our food and basic goods sustainable without this happening.
Also, 20% of Malaysia’s energy mix still comes from coal. An IDEAS Malaysia report has argued that this figure actually grew from 5% in 1996. It’s 2019, and more needs to be done to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in favour of renewables. That will also help to increase usage of electric vehicles and public transport, resulting in a cleaner environment.
There has been talk of the need to introduce a carbon tax and reduce fuel subsidies.
This is admittedly a contentious issue. The key is to ensure justice prevails.
What is needed is comprehensive and accurate data, so that the implementation of both initiatives when they happen can be properly targeted.
There is also a big difference between Klang Valley which has a fast improving public transportation system and the rest of Malaysia where people still depend on private vehicles.
Care must be taken that the changes do not become a burden on the B40s in our society. It can be done.
Indeed, a carbon tax and cutting fuel subsidies will be of little use to the environment if the burden falls disproportionately on the poor and underprivileged.
Anwar and the climate strikers are both calling for not only individuals and companies, but also nation-states, to act for the future.
Their voices must be heard as the future of our planet is at stake.
NIK NAZMI NIK AHMAD is the Chief Organising Secretary of KEADILAN and MP for Setiawangsa. He has written several books in Malay and English. His latest books are a new edition of Moving Forward: Malays for the 21st Century and 9 May 2019: Notes from the Frontline.
There have been reports that the Government of Myanmar has summoned the Malaysian Ambassador to that country on 31 July 2019 in relation to remarks made by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad on the plight of the Rohingya people.
For the record, Dr Mahathir had recently called for the Rohingya to either be treated as nationals by Myanmar or given territory to form their own state. This is part of the Malaysian government’s entirely correct, consistent and just stance on the Rakhine crisis, of which I am in complete agreement with.
A bloody, genocidal campaign waged by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, in the state since 2017 has resulted in more than 750,000 Rohingya fleeing the country, as well as credible allegations of mass killings and rape. According to the United Nations, one million Rohingya are now virtually stranded as refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the government of Myanmar would object to the Dr Mahathir’s comments. Nevertheless, their actions betray how completely in denial, indeed, delusional they are regarding the catastrophe the Tatmadaw—who are the true rulers of the Union—have deliberately engineered within their own borders.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that the Prime Minister’s remarks go against ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. The Ministry however is either wilfully ignorant or blind to the fact that the ASEAN Charter and the principle of non-interference does not give its members carte blanche to commit human rights abuses or engage in acts of gross impunity.
Indeed, Article 2 (2) (i) of the of the Charter mandates that ASEAN and its member states shall act according to the principles of “…respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice”.
The Yangon regime under its so-called State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi should also realise that the Tatmadaw’s crimes in Rakhine have sparked a humanitarian crisis that has had negative ramifications for the Southeast as well as South Asian regions and beyond. The plight of the Rohingya is no longer an internal issue of Myanmar’s but a regional and indeed global tragedy in the making should urgent action not be taken.
Should Myanmar wish to end the international opprobrium that it has so rightly been subject to, then it should rein in the out-of-control Tatmadaw, punish the preparators of the atrocities in the Rakhine and ensure that all the Rohingya are returned to their homes as well as given their rights as citizens of the Union.
NIK NAZMI NIK AHMAD
KEADILAN CHIEF ORGANISING SECRETARY
KEADILAN CENTRAL LEADERSHIP COUNCIL MEMBER
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT SETIAWANGSA
Chang Lih Kang and I were privileged to meet British Muslim scholar Timothy John Winter @ Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad. He is the Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College where imams are trained with the religious knowledge then exposed to leading scholars from Cambridge University.
Then we were honoured to visit (and pray Maghrib and Isha) at Cambridge Mosque Project the world’s first modern eco mosque and Cambridge’s first purpose-built mosque. It is not open to ths public yet. Ironically they did a test Friday Prayer on the day of the Christchurch attacks and the local non Muslim community came to give flowers to the mosque.
Sheikh Hakim has been the driving force of this project. About 10 years ago he came to Malaysia and I managed to get him to speak at Masjid Tengku Kelana Jaya Petra in my old constituency and we did a fundraising for this mosque project. Interestingly non Muslims too donated in in the building of the mosque.
Alhamdulillah, we were given a preview of the mosque from the man himself.