In the new Malaysia, four remarkable developments and four challenges

In a world where some government are becoming more repressive and even totalitarian, Malaysia has offered hope over the last couple of weeks.

Oct 19, 2018

By Anl Netto
In a world where some government are becoming more repressive and even totalitarian, Malaysia has offered hope over the last couple of weeks.

Recent developments have shown that the nation is moving up to the next level of enlightened consciousness after regime change.

Four remarkable developments have stood out.
First, a bill will be tabled in Parliament to repeal the death penalty for all offences including serious drug offences. As people around the world become more enlightened, the trend towards abolition has gained momentum. Malaysia will join the 105 nations that have already abolished the death penalty for all offences – out of 195 UN members or those with UN observer status.Hopefully, the Pardons Board will suspend the death sentences for those currently on death row.

Even though a survey has shown that a majority of Malaysians are opposed to or have serious reservations about the removal of the death penalty, especially for serious offences, it is likely that they will come around to the new reality. In a way, it is similar to how a majority of urbanites, including Catholics, felt the ISA was necessary, but then public opinion changed after situations of blatant injustice surfaced.

Second, the cabinet has agreed to a moratorium on the repressive colonial-era Sedition Act, pending the imminent repeal of the catch-all act, whose definition of sedition was vague and wide-ranging. Again, this is a welcome development.

Third, the Malaysian government has courageously released 11 Uyghur detainees who had fled their homeland after repression in China and allowed them to leave for Turkey. (The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group.) This is a marked departure from the previous Malaysian administration, which had deported some of the Uyghurs to China, where they faced an uncertain fate. This move comes on the heels of Malaysia’s decision to bravely terminate a few large deals that were seen as unfavourable to the public interest.

Fourth, the Ministry of Education plans to make it easier for pupils without proper citizenship papers or stateless children to be admitted to government schools. This too is positive development as we shouldn’t be denying children the right to education through no fault of their own.

So, much progress is being made. But challenges remain and the struggle for justice continues.

Let’s outline four challenges.

First, even with the above move, many children are still denied education in Malaysia – a basic human right. Who are they? The children of refugees and asylum seekers. Instead it is left to community groups and volunteers, lacking in funds and staff, to come to the aid of these innocent children. Surely, it won’t be too much of an effort to provide education for these children in government schools.

Second, migrant workers continue to be denied basic rights compared to how ‘expats’ are treated. This must be remedied as well. It is easy to figure out what rights they should be accorded as workers. Just think how we would like to be treated if we were to work in a foreign land - in terms of housing, working hours, accommodation and payment of wages.

Third, the caning of women in the East Coast has alarmed many Malaysians who had hoped things would be different in the new Malaysia. To the credit of the prime minister, he has said the caning of the two women in Terengganu gives a negative impression. The cabinet, he said, had discussed the issue and felt the caning did not reflect the qualities of justice and sympathy found in Islam.

Finally, income disparities. Although the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality (1.0 means absolute inequality and 0 signifies complete equality), has fallen from 0.513 in 1970 to 0.399 in 2016, statistic masks growing inequality in absolute terms.

A new study by the Khazanah Research Institute found that over the past two decades, “the actual differences in household income, adjusted to inflation, have almost doubled between the top 20 per cent households (T20) versus the middle and bottom 40 per cent (M40 and B40) households, respectively.”

Relative poverty – calculated based on those earning less than 60 per cent of median income – has risen by more than 50 per cent to three million households in the same period. Put another way, 40 per cent of households now suffer from relative poverty. These households spend a much larger proportion of the household income on essential expenditure compared to the top 20 per cent of households, leaving little, if anything left over for savings. Instead many of these households are likely to suffer significant debt.

Tackling this relative poverty is going to be more difficult than repealing repressive laws as the root causes are much deeper and may be traced to neoliberal economic policies, a regressive taxation system, and a lower share of national income going to workers compared to corporations and those owning capital.

One solution, as economist Joseph Stiglitz has suggested is to introduce “good taxes” or a progressive taxation system. These include inheritance taxes, capital gain taxes and property taxes for large holdings of properties. He also suggested a carbon tax to promote a greener economy.

So there you have it. Some of the notable landmarks Malaysia has achieved and some of the challenges that remain to be addressed. Many of these advances are based on universal principles that can be found in the social teachings of the Church.

May we continue to evolve to a higher level of enlightenment that will make us a nation that will be a model of governance, human rights and social justice.

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