Towards a more meaningful, inclusive Malaysia Day

This Sunday, we celebrate Malaysia Day, the first in the new Malaysia. The celebrations this year take on a new tone as we celebrate the diversity in our federation – comprising the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak – in the spirit of inclusivity.

Sep 14, 2018

By Anil Netto
This Sunday, we celebrate Malaysia Day, the first in the new Malaysia.

The celebrations this year take on a new tone as we celebrate the diversity in our federation – comprising the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak – in the spirit of inclusivity. This is a far cry when Sabah and Sarawak were considered another two “states” in the Federation of Malaysia, only important during general elections when they were deemed to be ‘fixed deposits’ of votes for the previous ruling coalition or for their oil and gas and timber revenue.

The sheer diversity of cultures and spiritual traditions in our land is itself a treasure.

The good news in recent days is that the cabinet has decided to maintain a minimum forest cover of 50 per cent. It will not allow the expansion of oil palm to encroach beyond this threshold. Not only will this help with climate change, it will mean less intrusion into native customary land, where indigenous communities find themselves displaced from their ancestral land by plantation firms and mega dams. But clarification is needed: does the official calculation of forest cover include oil palm and other cash crop plantations? By right, it should not - as such monoculture plantations have much reduced biodiversity.

As we celebrate our Malaysia Day, a few worrying trends have emerged.

First the caning of women in Terengganu has alarmed many Malaysians. So it is heartening to note that the cabinet discussed the issue in their weekly meeting and felt that the caning did not reflect the quality of justice and sympathy in Islam. Hopefully, all concerned will take heed of the cabinet’s view.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Bar has come out firmly to say it is opposed to all forms of corporal punishment, including caning or whipping, in accordance with the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), and international human rights norms. “We reaffirm our stance that corporal punishment must be totally abolished as a form of punishment for all offences,” its president said in a statement.

Second, we should stop encouraging people to drive by allowing cheaper cars and building new highways. This will create “induced demand” (ie encouraging people to drive) for more highways and cars. More must be done to move people not cars.

Third, the minimum wage increase to RM1,050 is way too low for low-income workers. For the peninsula, that amounts an increase of just RM50. After all, the PH manifesto had promised a rise to RM1,500.

Granted, business conditions may not be promising and firms could find it difficult to pay their workers a higher wage. But looking at firms individually is shortsighted. A higher minimum will put more money in people’s pockets to buy essential items. This greater demand will stimulate business activity and in turn benefit many firms — as demand for their products and services from the lower-income group will rise.

If the fear is that investors will move to other countries if wages are raised too much, there are also other ways to make life easier for low-income workers — by improving the “social wage” ie providing free education, free (or minimal cost) healthcare, affordable and improved public transport (think of the savings if you don’t need to own and maintain a private vehicle or don’t need to use it all the time), and more affordable housing (less money needed by workers to service expensive housing loans).

In this regard, a health insurance scheme, even if it is voluntary, is not the best way to go. It will be regressive: the lower-income group will have to pay proportionately more of their income on health insurance premiums. It will also very likely lead to a rise in healthcare spending by the government as vendors take advantage of the scheme to hike their prices.

Such a health insurance scheme, along with other forms of user-pay schemes, will erode social solidarity, which is a key tenet of Catholic Social Teaching. Under our existing taxation scheme, those who earn more pay higher taxes compared to the lower-income group. (Even if the lower-income group are exempt from income tax, they still pay other taxes such as the sales and service tax.) Government revenue from a common pool is then used for the common good eg education and healthcare spending.

As it is, we have a situation where patients at several of our public hospitals are unfortunately divided between “full-paying patients” and the rest. The former allows patients access to a specialist of their choice, “queuing convenience” (kemudahan giliran) in obtaining treatment, first class wards or its equivalent, access to all amenities depending on available resources, facilities and specialist expertise.

One government hospital website says that patients who opt for the “full-paying patients” scheme, other than employees of government-linked companies, will have to pay a minimum deposit of RM3,000 or half the estimated cost of treatment, whichever is higher.

What about the quality of treatment and waiting time for those who cannot afford such charges? And what will be the impact of a health insurance scheme on those who cannot afford the premiums?

Let’s not go down that route – and instead improve what we already have. Remove crony companies and middlemen sucking up a huge chunk of public funds incurred on the procurement of drugs and support services (cleaning, maintenance, etc) in the healthcare system. Use the savings to improve the quality of healthcare for patients and to slash waiting times. Provide free or subsidised transport for senior citizens and people with disabilities who need help getting to a public hospital.

All this would be much more meaningful in improving the quality of life of the lower-income group. We will have plenty of money for all this if we scrap all unnecessary and wasteful mega infrastructure projects (including new highways), stamp out corruption and move towards a progressive income tax and corporate tax system.

Such measures to help the lower-income group will go a long way to make Malaysia Day celebrations in the future a lot more meaningful especially for those now having a hard time coping with the cost of living.

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