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Thursday, June 29, 2017

A question of economic justice



A consensus is emerging - albeit laboriously - that the current kleptocratic and opaque regime which is propped up by an extensive patronage network, and headed by a person who stands at the apex of such a system, can only be changed through a strategic alliance.
The subtext of the ongoing discourse and power-sharing negotiations is the clich├ęd assumption that Malaysians find it hard to look beyond their narrow communal interests.
With the current regime having been weakened by infighting, the offer of another broad-based alliance, this time offering a credible alternative to the Malay community, is tempting. It seems that political feasibility has won over ideologically-based idealism.
The strategy has its merits. Age-old wisdom teaches us that Malaysia, after all, was built on a “social contract” of different races, the manifestation of which endures in the form of race-based political parties in BN, the various streams of our education system, and the increasingly heated discourse pertaining to syariah law.
Decades of being “Malaysians”, nevertheless, did not prevent the stratification of racial identities, in which belonging to an ethnicity seems to represent one’s radically unique worldview. An offer of political alternative would fail unless it caters to these realities.
Yet, we would be gravely mistaken if we believe we are locked into the reality that we have inherited. What we are experiencing at the moment was not inevitable; it is a result of political and policy decisions.
Our society is not dictated by the hidden hand of determinism, and it would be a failure of political imagination if we continuously let our actions be herded into neatly-prescribed solutions based on communal interests.
Justice has to be the ideologically-based idealism embraced by the current post-modernisation generation which is facing many new social, economic, and political issues such as inequality, human rights, gender equality, climate change et cetera.
These new problems cannot just simply be addressed through the blind adoption of existing "isms" such as socialism or libertarianism. It demands new political thinking amongst leaders to enlighten others and to address challenges in the community.
The world in general, and Malaysia in particular need to have a generation which regards justice as a normative value in making decisions throughout life. 
Economic realities in Malaysia
We need to look at reality through a different lens. Malaysia, like many other countries, is being driven by a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Roughly 40 percent of Malaysian households earn less than RM4,000 but face an increasingly punitive high cost of living.
Our workforce is not receiving their fair share of economic growth; wages have largely stagnated despite a rapid increase in productivity. Our wealth inequality (not income) is even starker; pension savings are so meagre that for many, they will be depleted after five years of retirement.
Investment vehicles are dominated by the wealthiest: 80 percent of Amanah Saham Bumiputera units are owned by the richest 0.2 percent. Slapped with the regressive goods and services tax (GST), both our wallets and patience are gradually being worn down. It is true that the Malaysian economy has grown rapidly in the past and its aftereffects continue to benefit us today, but the dividends of such growth remain elusive to most of us.
The problem of economic inequality is a particularly acute problem for the current generation. Unemployment rates among graduates continue to increase (33.8 percent of the unemployed are graduates) and while uncompetitive graduates should be responsible for themselves, cuts to university funding fly in the face of logic.
The concentration of urban development has created jobs within it but accorded no space and environment which a 20-something-year-old could afford to live in with a meagre wage.
Our city is equipped with public transportation, but the cost remains punitive to many. Meanwhile, our government responds flippantly by saying we should “be a part-time Uber driver” as a solution to our woes.
Inequality as a racial issue
These grumbles are not by themselves, alien. They have been expressed numerous times, both by the public and pundits alike. The phrase “bread and butter issues” has the effect of emphasising their ubiquity, and paradoxically belies the important question of economic justice that they pose.
Alternatively, this question is framed as a race problem, with the emphasis on the Bumiputera as having received the short end of the stick. This, some would say, is the reason why a “Malay alternative” to UMNO is needed.
Yet, it would be mistaken if we revert to the politics of the past if we want to engineer a more equal, and more multicultural Malaysia.
The analyses that preceded the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) were not wrong; years of colonial imposition have trapped the Malays in rural areas where they toiled in low-productivity economic activities and missed out on the economic growth that was largely only felt in modern industries in the cities.
In “The Colour of Inequality”, the economist Muhammed Abdul Khalid writes: “The trickle-down effect from the laissez-faire economy did not work; it trickled only to the mostly non-Malays who were next to the Europeans in the existing order, in terms of economic ranking, educational standards, and social organisations, and who were relatively more advanced than the Malays”.
Severely disenfranchised (75 percent of the poor were Malays), the gulf of inequality between races widened even after Independence, such that it warranted policies that specifically catered to the Malays. Politicians of that generation, including stalwarts such as Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail, rightly pointed out that national unity is hardly achievable if society suffers from chronic economic imbalance.
The subsequent rapid industrialisation, coupled with the New Economic Policy under Tun Hussein Onn and then Tun Dr Mahathir, assisted the Malay community. However, at the same time, there was a change of mood: racial lines hardened along political lines with the mostly-Chinese DAP being cast as the bogeyman by the ruling coalition.
It is within this environment that the NEP, initially devised to cater to socio-economic issues, saw itself transmogrified into a tool to propagate misguided views of ethnocentrism, ultimately becoming a wedge obstructing national unity.
Equitable development
If so, how should we deal with the question of economic justice if it is intricately woven with racial issues?
A racial alternative is only credible insofar as we do not articulate the means of dealing with the problem of inequality as exactly that: an economic problem. It is a problem that can be traced back to the waves of privatisation and return of laissez-faire economics, which resulted in a comparatively worse condition for the least advantaged among us.
This is the situation that the younger generation finds itself in: a situation in which working hard is unlikely to translate into better living standards.
Viewed from this angle, a credible alternative which articulates this problem and its solutions are lacking.
It is not a surprise, then, that the Election Commission (EC) reported that 4.2 million of eligible voters – most of them young – have not registered. This generation is increasingly disenchanted with the political games played by the elites and see that their interests are not being catered to by the existing political establishment.
Our political mindset needs to be calibrated so that it is attuned to this generation’s interests. We need a new path in which politics of the past can be welded to the aspirations of the future.
To that extent, there is a role to be played by Dr Mahathir, and other prominent figures from a different era. They possess the legitimacy to speak on behalf of their communities and the political capital necessary to create change.
However, their involvement and their politics should be transitional rather than a rigid, prescribed solution for the future. They should occupy advisory roles, and it is up to the current generation to hold the reins.
The re-calibration of our political mindset can only occur when the current generation articulates a vision of economic justice that transcends racial boundaries. This generation needs to start a serious discussion about the management of our economy and how wealth is distributed.

It is time to revive an ideologically-based idealism and carve out a platform for effective governance, in which urban and rural development can be equitable and sustainable. This, ultimately, is the challenge for a whole generation yearning for justice.

YUSMADI YUSOFF is a lawyer and founder of RIGHTS Foundation. He was formerly the MP for Balik Pulau. - Mkini

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