Will BN or PH reclaim our commons and redistribute wealth?

Kua-Kia-Soong-ge14-1By Kua Kia Soong

Events in 2017 have focused attention on economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) that are not covered in Suaram’s monitoring of civil and political rights, namely the hill slope collapse in Penang which killed 11 migrant workers and a Malaysian supervisor; deforestation such as at Merapoh, Pahang, leading to flash floods and landslides; the pollution of dams in various states; the privatisation of public parks in Taman Tun Dr Ismail and the Penang Botanical Gardens; the property glut and the lack of affordable housing; rising wealth inequality and wealth concentration.

With the approaching general election, these are issues which the two coalitions need to address. The protection of economic, social and cultural rights requires rigorously applied regulation, good governance and accountability since otherwise billions in taxpayers’ money is squandered.

Thus, while we welcome the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) report on the forex losses 20 years ago, we expect the government to have a standard operating procedure on setting up such RCIs the moment any financial scandal surfaces.

Such an accountable governance practice would include inquiries into all the other scandals since the 80s, and especially the most recent 1MDB scandal. It would also be mandatory that RCI recommendations are expeditiously carried out and not ignored as in the case of the Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).

Economic, social, and cultural rights include the human right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing, the right to physical and mental health, the right to social security, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to education.

Forcible evictions continue to be a common practice, especially when land has been targeted by developers, in which long-established urban settlers and plantation communities are uprooted with scant regard for their economic, social and cultural rights.

The right to potable drinking water is seriously compromised by the poisoning of the water supply by illegal factories near dams. Reports suggest this occurs in many states including Selangor and Melaka, and for some mysterious reason, the authorities have not yet acted to evict these illegal factories.

Many schools in Sarawak and Sabah, and Tamil schools in the peninsula, are in such poor physical condition that they are a risk to safety. Chinese and Tamil-medium schools are built as general election goodies, one at a time rather than according to population growth and the requests of parents.

Migrant lives matter

Most of the victims of these ESCR violations are migrants, and it is time that the Malaysian authorities, their corporate partners and all employers recognise that migrant lives matter.

Notice that when air pollution reaches hazardous levels and schools are closed, work carries on at construction sites! During the recent hill slope collapse in Penang, media attention was focused on the death of the sole Malaysian supervisor while there was little mention of the fate of the 11 migrants who lost their lives or whether their families had been compensated adequately.

The media also recently highlighted the appalling living quarters in which migrant workers continue to be housed, especially on construction sites, although this has been going on for decades.

The irony is apparent as without the blood, sweat and tears of these amazing men and women, we would have no tall, glistening glass apartment towers to state that we have arrived in the 21st century.

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers also suffer discrimination in access to medical care, work, housing and education.

Who is raising wealth redistribution in GE14?

Wealth inequality and wealth concentration in Malaysia is rising. The distribution of wealth shows that the top 10% of Malaysian households control 35% of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 40% own just 8% of the national wealth.

The finance ministry has just revealed that some 4% of Amanah Saham Nasional Bhd (ASNB) unit trust holders control nearly half of the RM200 billion net asset value (NAV) or RM100 billion worth of units. In contrast, those who own less than 1,000 units, which form the bulk of fund unit holders (61%), have a combined value of only RM1.7 billion in units (0.8% of NAV).

According to Forbes, Malaysia’s 50 richest persons have a total wealth of US$70 billion, or RM280 billion. Total government revenue is only RM180 billion, out of which individual income tax revenue accounts for only RM30 billion. Inheritance tax in Malaysia was abolished in 1991.

Wage stagnation poses a real problem to Malaysia’s effort to become a “high-income” nation by 2020, while employers continue to prefer hiring cheap foreign labour and refuse to introduce the minimum wage of RM1,000 that took effect in 2016.

Yet the 2015 median income of half the Malaysian population was just RM600 more than the pay given to foreign labourers. The median monthly salaries and wages received by paid employees was RM1,703 in 2016.

The standard of living for the bottom 40% will continue to be depressed as long as the economy depends on millions of low-wage foreign workers. Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to rise. Unionisation has been a problem for decades, especially in industries such as electronics.

According to the EPF, as of 2015, two-thirds of members aged 54 have RM50,000 or less in their accounts. This amount is likely to be used up within five years of retirement.

Yet none of the political parties in the two coalitions is raising the issue of wealth redistribution in the GE14. Do they even plan to implement progressive taxation of the rich, curb speculation and tax evasion?

Or are they in the pockets of the rich, especially the big developers who seem to have their way in the privatisation of our commons, the common spaces demarcated for communal enjoyment?

Reclaim our public assets

Does Pakatan Harapan have any plan to reclaim our public assets, especially public utilities that were privatised during the reign of Dr Mahathir Mohamad; to strengthen public sector health, education, housing and transport services including highways; to regulate financial transactions and speculation; to regazette all permanent forest and wildlife reserves; to ensure all local people are consulted before any development proceeds; to protect the rights of farmers and fisherfolk and create a national food security policy with a push for food agriculture instead of commodities such as palm oil; to distribute land fairly to all genuine farmers; to promote renewable energy projects that do not destroy forests or Orang Asli land?

During Mahathir’s reign, thousands of indigenous peoples were displaced for the Bakun dam and other mega dams in Sarawak and the Selangor dam while vast wealth has been reaped by those who have exploited and own more and more of our commons.

To take the Bakun dam as an example, timber from an area the size of Singapore island was extracted by Ekran Bhd, and on top of their failure to carry through the Bakun HEP project, Malaysian taxpayers still had to compensate the company to the tune of RM1 billion.

Developers today seem to have both coalitions, Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan, in their pockets as they carve out more and more “eco worlds” out of the pristine jungle and reclaim more and more land on our coastal shores that are all part of our commons.

These incursions into hill slope jungles and our beaches have created havoc with the environment as we have seen in recent weeks. Now we hear that the Penang state government wants to corporatise Penang Botanical gardens while a public park in TTDI is to be developed for condominiums.

Permanent forest reserves and structure plans can be degazetted at will of the state government. In Selangor, the privatisation of our water assets remains unresolved. It is often said, “You can tell if a society is democratic if its water is available to everyone, if it’s clean, and in public hands.”

Our collective ownership of the commons is our birthright – it is our birthright to hold water, air, land and Malaysian nature in trust for our future generations.

We must continue our efforts to push for the protection and restoration of our commons, and to defend it against the attempts by developers and their political allies to privatise our commons. There is an English folk poem from the 18th century enclosure movement that reminds us of the court cases over the blockades by the indigenous people against encroachments by timber merchants and developers:

“They hang the man and flog the woman

That steal the goose from off the common

But let the greater villain loose

That steals the common from the goose.”

Kua Kia Soong is the adviser for Suaram, a human rights NGO.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.