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Election Watch

The poor yet to have a taste of true ‘Merdeka’

Source: Malay Mail
Date: 27 August 2012

ONE trademark of a sociologist is to observe, ask questions, listen carefully and then make some sense of the views expressed.

This is about listening to voices from the grassroots especially among those who have some deep grievance and don’t have formal avenues to express them.

A number of these conversations keep ringing in my mind especially when we celebrate 55 years of Merdeka and 50 years of Malaysia. For many of us how life has drastically changed from 1957 to 2012 all for the better but for others, especially those at the bottom 40% of the social economic pyramid it is a hard life especially in the city.

Conversation with taxi drivers WHENEVER I get into a taxi I always ask the driver if this is his car and if the permit is in his name. In recent times I also ask what they felt about the prime minister’s recent announcement of individual taxi permits. The answers often surprise me.

One morning, my wife and I took a taxi from the airport driven by a young man from Perlis. He said he is the second driver.

Neither the car nor the permit is in his name. He said he could not raise the RM5,000 to secure the contract. I asked why as a Bumiputera he could not seek help from agencies like Mara or Tekun. He said one needed to know a politician.

I asked three taxi drivers what they thought about the PM’s announcement.

All of them said it was only a dream and they don’t see happening in reality.

One driver said how they struggled under a very oppressive system, where if you complain, try to form a cooperative, a society or even speak to the media the company will withdraw the car and permit. They say the drivers are politically well-connected. They said that they had to pay daily rates for the cars and permits.

They worked between 12 and 14 hours a day, sometimes longer. This system of giving licences to one company is enslaving them and they suggested that it is better to be organised as a cooperative. This self-management collectively will enable them to move from low income to middle income.

Their question was why is the government imposing a policy which makes a few rich but enslaves the rest.

A majority of the drivers on the KLIA route (of whom 80% are Bumiputera) feel betrayed and they do not experience the Merdeka we speak of as they are bound by richer Malaysians who are oppressing them economically and socially. We must review our taxi licensing policy.

We must democratise the permits and empower the taxi drivers through direct ownership.

We must ensure that the permits reach the right target group.

Talking to flat dwellers IN A recent study undertaken by a number of us with the Department of National Unity and Integration, we visited nine highly densely populated neighbourhoods of high rise flats. Our role is to document their struggles and issues they encounter.

We were shocked to discover some families wait 45 minutes for an elevator. This is because of the four lifts, only one might be working.

These low cost flats are emerging as urban ghettos as the environment and infrastructure is not conducive for a good quality of life. A majority of these families are in the low income bracket.

Community interaction facilities are lacking.

Crime and anti-social behaviour are high and this social environment becomes the breeding ground for gangs, drug pushers; and a seed bed for domestic violence and alcohol abuse.

In addition neglected youngsters are also underperforming academically, manifesting antisocial behaviour.

Many of these local issues are not being addressed by local government.

There is tremendous inefficiency at this level. One root cause of this inefficiency is the non-accountability of local government to ordinary people as they are not elected. These low income flat dwellers are not experiencing Merdeka.

They are trapped in a cycle of urban poverty with no accountable local government. Residents have no political rights to elect local councillors of their choice.

This neglect of the urban poor is a direct result of local residents not having the political rights to determine issues.

We must return to local government elections. We had this at the time of Merdeka but was suspended on March 2, 1965. A recommendation was made by the Athi Nahappan Royal Commission (1971) that “every inch of the country should be ‘covered’ by a local authority” and that it should be managed by fully elected members. However, the report was not accepted by the government and to this day we have local governments that are unelected and unaccountable.

Creating avenues to be heard THERE are many unresolved issues especially among the bottom 40% of society. No federal, state or local authority can be efficient if they are not elected and unaccountable to the people.

Public policies must be in the interest of the people not individuals at the top.

Materialism and greed is dominating political discourse and decision making. Creating formal mechanisms for social dialogue and grassroots discussion improves governance. It clears many misconceptions, misinformation and distortions.

Political leaders and public officials must go to the ground not just for ‘walk about’ but participate in discussions. Political leaders must develop the skill of listening. In so doing they will discover the pulse of local communities.

Those without a voice also want to shout “Merdeka” and experience it in reality.

Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is the Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies, University Kebangsaan Malaysia and is secretary-general of Proham, a human rights society established by former Suhakam & Police commissioners. 

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