Merdeka also means freedom from poverty

by Liew Chin Tong

When it comes to mainstream media, whether it’s the Malay, Chinese, Tamil or English press, the political debate would inevitably be framed in racial and ethnic terms. In the familiar discourse that revolves around race, everyone seems to have an opinion to add to the endless fray.

This tends to lead to a collective fatigue and people shy away from the topics that should actually occupy media space and public policy debate – the important issues of health and disease, career, education, and other basic necessities of life.

As we celebrate Merdeka dayI would like to share three real life stories from my constituency of Kluang in central Johor.

Three true stories

First: A family of nine lives in Sri Lalang, in a kampung located between the Kluang and Ayer Hitam parliamentary boundaries. The man of the house is a lorry attendant, earning less than RM1,000 a month. Living in the same household are his 85-year-old mother, 71-year-old mother-in-law, wife and their five children.

The eldest son is working. In view of the family’s financial burden, two of the kids chose to quit secondary school. The 16-year-old stopped schooling three years ago, the other one dropped out this year.

The secondary school is located slightly away from home, requiring a daily bus fare and allowance of RM5. The other two children in primary school would need RM2 everyday for bus fare and pocket money. The family lives in very poor conditions, the wooden hut they call home does not even have proper sanitation.

Second: A family lives in a low cost house in Jalan Sawi. Their electricity supply was cut off after failing to pay the bill. The 45-year-old home owner lost his job due to his recurrent migraine and eye problems, side effects from a motorbike accident that happened when he was 19.

His eldest son is 18. The other children, aged between 12 to 16, had to quit school. The youngest child, a diabetic, needs insulin shots four times a day.

Third: A mother who desperately seeks donations from door to door to save her two-year-old girl, born with a hole in the heart. Her husband does odd jobs, unable to sustain full-time employment after a motorcycle injury. They have three children.

Better education enabled her to get a job, which she gave up in order to care for her sick child. She now works as helper in a hawker stall earning RM2 per hour.

Since the Kluang General Hospital has no specialist doctor for the little girl’s condition, she must travel to Johor Bahru, about 110km from their home, for treatment. A very costly trip for a someone who earns two ringgit per hour.

Our shared pains

Each of these stories pains me. It is a travesty that 56 years after Merdeka, there are still children-turned-dropouts for want of finances.

So many cases of poverty are linked to motorcycle accidents that caused injuries or death. Every year road accidents leave an average of 6,000 dead and 50,000 injured, behind each death or injury is a tale of woe.

Not enough thought is put into how to improve our public transport system. How do we break out from the private car-oriented traffic model?

The social welfare department offers minimal assistance and monetary aid, the general attitude is almost as though “too little is better than none”. The system is unable to cope with the new welfare needs which arise.

Our policies towards medical needs in society are indifferent, passive, and “no money no talk”. At the same time, the  problems faced by an aging population are hardly on the radar of the authorities’ planning considerations.

After the 1997 financial crisis, our economy did not grow by leaps and bounds, wages have been suppressed. The influx of foreign labour further kept our wages stagnant.

Many hardworking citizens barely have enough to make ends meet. When sickness strikes, it can cause an entire family to lose its breadwinner.

And oh yes, the three families in the stories above are all Malay.

Breaking out of the racial frame

Yet some of us are still stuck in the racial frame. Some Chinese even believe that ALL  Malays obtain government assistance. I would like to say to them that poverty knows no racial barrier. There are far more poor Malay households than we imagine.

The Malays are not the problem. The real problem is UMNO. It is UMNO that claims it protects the Malay’seconomic interests. Yet I can argue that the numerous evidence of Malay poverty would prove otherwise.

Let us take off the tinted lenses of “race”. Look at the needs of every person in terms of job opportunities, education, housing, transport, health care, welfare.

It is time for policy-makers to go back to the basics of our fundamental human needs, in order to rebuild this broken nation.

* The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the columnist. Liew Chin Tong is DAP’s National Political Education Director and MP for Kluang.

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