Strengthening social solidarity to ease the public burden

In the new Malaysia, there are a few things we can do to immediately raise the quality of life for the lower-income group. The first step has already

Aug 16, 2018

By Anil Netto
In the new Malaysia, there are a few things we can do to immediately raise the quality of life for the lower-income group. The first step has already been done: removal of the GST.

Yet, many ordinary people are still burdened by several key factors — babysitting, private tuition fees, motorbike and car loans, university fees, private medical costs, expensive housing prices and insufficient retirement savings.

The financial burden from all of this leads to rising household debt and people feeling stressed out after working long hours with little time for family and recreation.

A caring and compassionate government will try to ease the burden on ordinary people by strengthening social safety nets and reversing the neoliberal trend.

To reduce babysitting costs, childcare creches should be provided in or around places of work. The quality of teaching and remedial assistance in our schools should also be raised so there would be little need for private tuition classes after school hours. If the standard of education and teaching in our public schools was revised and improved, there would be no need to spend a fortune on sending children to private or international schools.

Public transport, especially the bus and rail systems, should be improved so that ordinary people can reduce their reliance on private motor vehicles.

A major benefit from this would be reduced greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from the transport sector. Instead of spending billions on highways and yet another national car project, that money would be better spent on more buses and trains. Fares should be reduced to minimal levels to encourage more people to use public transport.

The benefits would be tremendous: reduced congestion on the roads, healthier air, less time in traffic jams, and more time for recreation and leisure with the family. Meanwhile, many people who can ill afford it are incurring heavy premiums on private medical insurance — simply because they don’t believe public hospitals can provide them with high quality critical care during a medical emergency.

The government’s intention to raise public healthcare spending from 2.2 per cent of GDP to over 3 per cent is welcome. But there is a lot more that can be done to trim the fat from the public healthcare sector and use the funds to improve our public hospitals and clinics. First, the Ministry of Health should seriously review the procurement of medicine to make sure they eliminate the middlemen and rentseekers charging exorbitant prices. Second, it should review the terms of hospital support services (catering, maintenance, waste disposal etc) that were privatised to well-connected firms.

Are our hospitals getting value for money spent? Third, the ministry should act to stem the outflow of experienced specialists and doctors from general hospitals to private hospitals. This can be done by providing adequate promotion opportunities and recognition to those skilled and dedicated personnel in our hospitals. There is no reason a country like Malaysia cannot provide its people with top-class public healthcare services in general hospitals, if we cut the cronyism and rent-seeking and curb the neoliberal trends (privatisation, full-paying patient scheme, etc).

A most meaningful service that the government of the new Malaysia can do is to provide a hotline service for free transport service (or with a minimal fee) for senior citizens, including the bedridden, who don’t have their own transport or any family members to take them to hospital. As for expensive home prices, the government needs to seriously review the kinds of homes being built. Developers tend to prefer building more expensive homes as they have higher profit margins.

Yet, that is where the property overhang is the severest. Many of these homes remain either unsold or unoccupied. At the same time, not enough genuinely affordable homes are being built below RM250,000 ie priced at not more than three times annual income. Alternatives such as rentto- own schemes and housing cooperatives need to be explored. The government should also raise spending on public universities to the level it was at a few years ago before budgets were slashed in consecutive years. In this way, student loans can be reduced substantially, and graduates won’t have to be saddled by high loans even before they start working. Perhaps it is also time to come up with a minimum pension for all senior citizens to ease the pressure on them in their golden years.

At present, for many Malaysians, their pensions may not be enough or their EPF savings may run dry after five to ten years. So a minimum pension would help ease their plight.

Let’s not forget migrant workers and refugees. No worker should be exploited in our land. The principle should be equal pay for equal work for an equal number of hours. Loopholes that allow exploitation of workers should be plugged — especially the so-called “contractor for labour” system that allows employers to transfer their responsibility as employers to outside contractors who can side-step labour laws. Refugees should be allowed to work.

Their children should be allowed to go to school. It is inhuman to deprive children of their right to education. Malaysia must quickly ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which outlines the rights of the displaced and the state’s legal obligation to protect them.

Since we are talking about social solidarity, it is time we take a look at Bolivian law which grants Earth and life-systems (human communities along with the ecosystems) inherent rights specified in the law. Under this framework, Earth is regarded as a “collective subject of public interest” and is granted a legal personality. In this way, the public can bring up public interest action to protect and defend the rights of the Earth. This is part of our solidarity with the overall ecological system, in which human communities and the human economy is just a subset.

Care for our Common Home... Now that interest in Tabung Harapan is subsiding, it is time to work on all these improvements to our social support network and finance them through a progressive taxation system in the long run. We cannot rely on market forces alone and think that it would miraculously lead to improvements to the Common Good. It won’t; instead, full blown market forces will only profit Big Business and powerful corporations while widening income and wealth inequalities.

The government, as stewards and custodians of the new Malaysia, has an important role in easing the burden of the ordinary people.

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