A bleak and challenging year ahead

The year ahead is likely to be a difficult and challenging one. The fallout from the 1MDB debacle continues and has to be sorted out.

Jan 08, 2016

By Anil Netto
The year ahead is likely to be a difficult and challenging one. The fallout from the 1MDB debacle continues and has to be sorted out. A full accounting into the billions of ringgit involved needs to be carried out by an independent investigation.

Although global oil prices have plunged for now, this has not translated to a lowering in the cost of living. Instead, ever since the months preceding the implementation of GST, the cost of essential items, especially food, has soared.

A deputy minister earned much flak when he told Malaysians they could work two jobs to make ends meet. If only it was as simple as that.

First of all, more  Malaysians are working longer hours in their existing jobs, and they are finding it hard to cope with the rising cost of living.

The rising cost of living is mainly due to the removal of subsidies, the GST, the weakening of the ringgit, a crisis of confidence and the difficulty in balancing the government budget after years of neoliberal economic policies.

The removal of subsidies is due to the following factors:

--the promotion of the user-pay model under the neoliberal economic system while community solidarity and crosssubsidising has been eroded.
--the lack of oil revenue to finance the government's operating budget after years of extravagant spending when times were good.
--corruption and mismanagement which have swallowed public funds.

So, to narrow the budget deficit, the government continues to slash subsidies even further for tariffs, public transport and other essential services. 

Not only are Malaysians working longer hours, they have inadequate rest time. Many are already working two jobs. For instance, a woman may work as a domestic cleaner while spending the rest of the day assisting a roadside food stall operator or a market trader. At neither place is she likely to have statutory benefits such as EPF and Socso — which means no retirement savings or accident coverage.

Neoliberal policies now mean that university and college students have to take study loans to finance their tertiary education as course fees rise. Even before they enter the workforce, university students are already burdened with debt. They then have to contend with higher food costs, soaring property prices and private motor vehicle costs, given the poor state of public transport.

Many Malaysians now feel they can no longer rely on government schools or general hospitals for quality education or medical care. So they have to cough out ridiculous sums for private schools, private hospital fees or private medical insurance, increasing their debt burden.

This trend did not happen by chance. It is the result of the deliberate introduction of neoliberal economic policies that began during the Margaret Thatcher era in the 1980s and were adopted locally. The result: private corporations have profited  enormously while workers and other ordinary Malaysians have borne the brunt of higher fees and taxes such as the GST.

The gradual reductions in the rate of income tax for the wealthy and corporate tax over the years mean that the government today has limited funds to subsidise education, healthcare and even public transport (though funding for weapons spending does not seem to be a problem). The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is likely to intensify the corporate domination of the economy, leaving workers in an increasingly vulnerable position.

The pressure on families is enormous. Are our churches sensitive enough to the plight of the working people, let alone senior citizens, the homeless, refugees, migrant workers and the sick? How are they going to cope with the rising cost of living while the faithful continue to ‘Pay, Pray and Obey’?

The political landscape is no less bleak. As the cost of living soars and as subsidies are removed, support for the government continues to erode. Murmurs of public disquiet can be heard all around us. They are shared on phone messaging systems and social media.

As uncertainty creeps in, new repressive laws are likely to come into effect, the latest being the National Security  Council Bill, which was passed by the Senate just before Christmas. Meanwhile, activists and others are hauled up, investigated and charged with sedition and other coercive laws.

The M Indira Gandhi case touching on the conversion of minors, has left many feeling concerned about custody rights in such situations and the protection of minority rights. Indira, a Hindu mother, has been involved in a legal battle to gain custody of her three children who had been unilaterally converted to Islam by her exhusband, who is now a Muslim. On December 30, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Ipoh High Court had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

With the economy listless, corruption rampant, new coercive laws coming into force and creeping Islamisation, the brain drain is likely to heighten as many urban parents are advising their children not to return after their studies abroad. This is a great pity, as their talents could have been put at the service of the nation.

Those of us who remain thus have even greater responsibility to be agents of change, reform and yes, transformation. Given that many institutions of government are, themselves, badly in need of reform, the momentum for change should come from us and the next generation.

There is hope yet. Many among the idealistic younger generation can see what is happening around them. They are more attuned to the environmental degradation around us.

At times like this, we should not only hope and pray for change, but also work for justice and peace and environmental protection wherever we are. There is no better time to live up to our calling to be the salt of the earth than now.

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