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Friday, December 31, 2010

The year according to Kuala Selangor folk

Though it is the new ‘Wawasan 2020’ or ‘Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang’ and as pervasive, the meaning of ‘1 Malaysia’ was severely criticised by respondents who felt that it did not gel with the racism in their lives. — Picture by Choo Choy May
KUALA SELANGOR, Dec 31 — It’s that time of year again where the media recaps what it considers the biggest events of the past 365 days.

From church bombings in the first week of 2010 to (as of the writing of this article) the Cameron Highlands bus crash, news junkies and the punditry have had a lot to write about.

But just because an event or issue is incisively analysed and expertly commented on does not necessarily mean it matters as much to the public. This explains why stories like “man stabs wife then jumps to death” tend to always edge out political stories on online most-read lists.

So what does the Malaysian public really think of the events that made the headlines? The Malaysian Insider decided to take a snapshot of this collective, ground-eyed view sentiment in the parliamentary constituency of Kuala Selangor.

It is an area that occupies a curious middle ground between what is usually regarded as urban and rural. Its residents insist it feels like a kampung yet it is only about 40 minutes from the metropolitan Klang Valley.

The oil palm estates that carpet Kuala Selangor hide villages where cellphone reception is spotty and yet many youths commute each morning to factories in Petaling Jaya and Klang.

There was a vast diversity in events and scandals that piqued the interest of those interviewed. But despite differences in ethnicity, age, occupation and exposure, they all felt touched by an over-arching national issue that wove itself into their lives and their loved ones.

A brief on the methods

The interviewees were asked to recall themselves what were some of the events of 2010 that really held their attention. If they couldn’t do that, then they would get a list of suggestions.

The list included the church bombings in January, the fatal shooting of Aminulrasyid Amzah, the murder of cosmetics billionaire Datuk Sosilawati Lawiya, the Sodomy II trial, the trials of former Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo and former Transport Minister Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik.

The third part of survey was a free-form interview on whether their lives were better this year compared to last year and their hopes going into next year.

A majority of them requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “Tolong aa jangan masuk nama. Nanti silap cakap masuk dalam tau,” replied when one respondent when interviewed.

Of the scores of people The Malaysian Insider met, only five could accurately name the state assemblyman and parliamentarian who were elected to represent them.

The rest either could not even name the parties that represent them at the state and federal level. But they knew their areas were under the “Opposition”. (For the record, the MP for Kuala Selangor is PAS’s Dr Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad. Kuala Selangor has three state seats — Ijok (represented by Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, Bukit Melawati (Muthiah Maria Pillay) and Jeram (Datuk Amiruddin Setro).

So it’s no surprise that only two respondents took notice of the partisan bickering that went on throughout the year in Parliament.

By far, the most commonly remembered event was the murder of Sosilawati (five respondents). Along with Dr Khir getting charged for an allegedly fraudulent land deal (three respondents).

No one was interested as to whether or not Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim “did it” or not with Saiful Bukhari. Neither has anyone heard of WikiLeaks and what the Singapore intelligence agencies think of the court case against the PR de-facto leader.

It all boils down to ringgit and sen

More than 10 respondents had trouble agreeing with any of the choices provided. But when it came to the question of how they generally felt about 2010 they, along with the others, talked endlessly about how frustrated they were with the economy.

Lack of decent-paying jobs in Kuala Selangor, the rise in the prices of goods and the removal of subsidies were at the top of their minds.

“Why is that when Mahathir (fourth Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) was around the economy was OK?” asked a 28-year-old stationery store owner. Six other residents said the same thing.

“Mahathir brought in the factories, there were money and jobs. Everyone after him, Pak Lah ka (fifth Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi), Najib ka (current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak) everything went down.”

This pining for the golden age of Mahathir is partly tied to the tepid Kuala Selangor economy. The former premier’s industrialisation drive in the ‘90s saw factories sprout up all over Kuala Selangor. The largest was an electronics firm called Sankyu which employed close to 2,000 workers.

When Sankyu closed shop about nine years ago businesses from consumer electronics stores to food stall operators to sundry shops saw a steep drop in sales. No other industry of comparable size has taken its place.

While in the poorest parts of Kuala Selangor, the cycle of poverty and crime replenishes itself.

Subramaniam Ratnam runs free literacy classes for mostly Indian youth in a community hall in Kasawari, Kuala Selangor. He’s only been doing it for a year and half but he keeps finding more and more kids who can’t read or write, some of them in Standard Six.

“Because they are poor, the parents do not have the time or money to ensure that their children retain what they learned in school.

“So if they can’t read or write by time they are in Standard Six, the parents tend to pull them out as they feel that it is useless going to school. The parents feel their kids might as well be put to work.

“Then these kids start hanging out with other older kids and delinquency develops,” says Subramaniam of the Light of Life Welfare Association. The centre in Kuala Selangor currently has about 100 kids of varying ages.

The lack of high-income earners in Kuala Selangor crimps the association’s ability to get donors, says Sabrina Shantini Subramaniam, who also volunteers to teach free classes.

“I was born here. Not in India or China”.

But their gripes do not just stop at the higher price for sugar and the lack of decent-paying jobs.

When it came to talking about depreciating incomes or how hard it is to get credit, two-thirds of the interviewees inevitably started blaming race.

They either said they were being discriminated against in getting jobs, loans and business space because of their race. Or that their race should be wary of trusting other races because the other was going to walk all over them.

Interestingly, like the economy, they felt that racial relations were better under Dr Mahathir.

An Indian Malaysian grocer claims he never got small business loans because of his ethnicity.

“I look at the Malay next to me at the bank and he is getting a loan. Why are they getting and I am not? I am also poor. I was also born in Malaysia not in India.”

A Malay Malaysian woman felt that the supermarket near her roadside snack stall is trying to squeeze her out because the owner is a Chinese Malaysian.

“They park their trucks on the road so I don’t have space. If it was a Malay owner, I don’t think he would do that. Malays are more considerate.”

A Chinese Malaysian businessman explains why he thinks industries are leaving Malaysia for Vietnam, Thailand or China.

“Who wants to do business here when they take 30 per cent from you?” he says, referring to the 30 per cent Bumiputera ownership imposed on foreign companies.

Not one of the complaints was optimistic that the Economic Transformation Plan could respond to their problems.

A national obsession goes local

Ibrahim Suffian, of the Merdeka Center, tracks people’s sentiments concerning national issues. His latest work shows that more and more Malaysians tend to link race with their troubles.

“When we talked to voters in a certain area, they said they felt marginalised because their race does not control the economy,” says Ibrahim when contacted.

In other words, there may have been other reasons for the respondents not being able to further themselves such as banks tightening credit or industries depressing wages, he says, but they decided to blame race.

“It is not surprising given how pervasive the subject of race is in our national politics,” he says.

Indeed, the ruling BN owes its very existence to making sure Malaysians identify themselves first with a given ethnic category. That category will then determine their pecking order when it comes to getting business opportunities, scholarships and loans.

This is the crux of the survey in Kuala Selangor. Many may not have remembered any specific events of 2010. But the raging debate about race and identity, which some have even called for the Internal Security Act to be used, has filtered down to them.

It’s not the individual events that mattered. But the events coalescing together to form a lens with which to perceive the world.

The rhetoric of the Malay ultra-supremacist movement, ketuanan Melayu vs ketuanan rakyat, Malay vs non-Malay rights and debates over Article 153 of the Constitution has seeped into the public consciousness.

It has fused to fuel these individual stories of loans, opportunities and futures denied.

Says an Indian Malaysian businessman who summed up the feelings of his friends.

“What is this 1 Malaysia? We should all get the same treatment but we don’t. That’s all I want. I don’t feel like I am one with Malaysia.” - Malaysian Insider

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