The tyranny of economic inequality — and how the people are diverted

It seems that there are some disturbing trends commonly surfacing in several countries in the region.

Oct 30, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
It seems that there are some disturbing trends commonly surfacing in several countries in the region. Neo-liberal economic policies have opened up the private sector to projects that seem to benefit the corporate sector more than the ordinary workers and local communities.

Property development, mining by large corporations and the construction of expensive mega infrastructures (e.g. unnecessary dams) have resulted in the eviction of long-established local communities and threaten the environment.

Ordinary workers are finding it hard to make ends meet. Increasingly, companies, and even government agencies, have resorted to outsourcing their labour requirements, which leaves workers in poorer bargaining positions. It is now common to see more workers having to work longer hours, in many cases, without statutory coverage such as EPF and Socso. Neo-liberal economic policies — including the reduction of tax rates for the wealthy and companies, along with the cuts in public spending and subsidies for essential goods and services — have widened the gap between the rich and the poor.

The cost of living, especially food, has risen while wages have not kept up. And not only that, “today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism, combined with inequality, proves doubly damaging to the social fabric,” warns the Bishop of Rome, Francis, in his recent Joy of the Gospel exhortation.

In this climate, where many are feeling insecure and uncertain about the future, we witness the emergence of chauvinistic groups spewing conservative religious propaganda which focuses on seemingly petty, though emotional issues, such as Oktoberfest and whether it is permissible to touch a dog. Such propaganda feeds the insecurities and sensitivities of the larger populace and diverts attention away from the critical socio-economic issues of the day.

These trends are by no means confined to Malaysia, as other countries in the region are beset by similar problems. We see that in the case of India, where the newly elected right-wing nationalist Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP) was elected on an anti-corruption platform but is also intent on promoting an all-out neo-liberal agenda.

Communal or nationalist rhetoric focusing on insecurities or prejudices about the Other (whether it is the minorities or regional national rivals) then becomes a convenient tool to divert attention from economic disparities, the plunder of natural resources and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of the elite.

Over in Hong Kong, some of those critical of the students’ pro-democracy protests have pointed to alleged foreign interests behind the mass demonstrations. The media discussion seems to be limited to whether it is okay for the nominations for candidates in the election to be decided by a hand-picked council.

But the reality is more than just democracy versus authoritarianism. There are huge corporate interests in the territory who do not want any change to the status quo — about 20 per cent of the people reportedly live below the official poverty line. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, is a staggering 0.53, perhaps the highest for a developed economy. Hong Kongers are also unhappy about the high cost of living and high property prices while corporations enjoy low tax rates.

As people struggle with economic hardship and voice their dissatisfaction over cutbacks in spending and subsidies, new taxes and rampant corruption, some in power might be tempted to use repressive laws (e.g. sedition laws) and instruments of power to keep the population — workers’ movements, critics, opposition politicians, pro-democracy students’ movements in check.

As Francis warned in the Joy of the Gospel: “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.

“This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

It is in this wider context that we should view what is happening around the Asian region as financial, corporate and corrupt political interests flex their muscles while the people remain divided by narrow ethno- religious rhetoric or are rallied by patriotic jingoism.

We should not fall for such tactics and should instead, look at the root causes of what is plaguing our societies, and work towards empowering the poor, the maginalised and the disenfranchised and take steps to correct unjust power structures.

Ultimately, our message should be one of hope and solidarity behind all those working for a more just society, a kingdom with opportunities for everyone to live life to the full, the way God wanted it to be.

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