Missing Middle Malaysia

What the middle class need are fair policies that reward their hard work.

Malaysians like to talk a lot about being “moderate” or coming to the “middle” or “centre”, without really defining what it means.

In the United States, for example, being “moderate” means that you’re not as liberal as “the Squad” in the Democratic Party, or as right as, probably Donald Trump, though the US president is a poor representation of Republican conservatism.

But in Malaysia, ideology about the role of government in the economy and in our private lives are secondary to our racial identity and religious beliefs. Discussions about social values are also often tied to our faith and ethnicity, instead of being independent of them.

The way Malaysian politics are delineated also isn’t very helpful in defining an ideology or narrative outside a racial or religious lens, with the exception of Parti Sosialis Malaysia, though it’s doubtful if they’re an actual political party or more like a non-government organisation.  

Not only are race-blind or non-religious philosophies absent from most Malaysian political parties, even the divide between government and Opposition is blurred occasionally, like when Bersatu deputy president Mukhriz Mahathir urged PAS and Umno members to join Pakatan Harapan (PH), as if Bersatu, Umno, PAS, and Amanah are all interchangeable political parties with minor, if any, differences in ideology.

The same criticism of near-identical race-driven ideology, of course, is thrown at DAP vs MCA, or MIC vs Senator P. Waytha Moorthy’s new Indian party, Malaysian Advancement Party.

So, when we talk about being “moderate” or “middle” in Malaysia, those terms don’t really mean anything. Is calling for the decriminalisation of extramarital sex and an end to khalwat raids considered “centrist” or “extreme”, or does it depend on whether you’re a Muslim or non-Muslim?

What is more useful than touting a vague sort of “moderation”, I believe, is espousing a clear set of values and beliefs.

Aspiring lawmakers and political leaders need to be clear about their policies and where they stand on various issues (not just being anti-corruption), so that Malaysians can move beyond personality politics and not just vote for those with the same skin colour as us.

Political ideology should go beyond proclaiming nebulous support “for the people”, as different philosophies have different ways of boosting the public good.

Take, for example, the government’s decision to reintroduce allowances for interns in each ministry and government agency, which Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman hopes will lead to a policy of paid internships across the public and private sectors.

When did (presumably) Barisan Nasional (BN) stop paying government interns allowances in the first place? In any case, some lawmakers may support paid internships because they believe labour deserves remuneration, while others may think interns shouldn’t be paid because they aren’t doing valuable work.

I myself pay my intern at a start-up. He does do some amount of “work” as a trainee reporter at my news outfit, but I’m just training him most of the time, for free too.  

I don’t believe that paid internships should be legislated in the private sector. Let businesses decide if they can afford, or want, to pay interns. Some companies already have paid internships, so their rivals may follow suit to attract talented interns. The market should decide ultimately.

I would also question if paid internships in the civil service is a useful spend of taxpayers’ monies, but I suppose it’s up to the administration of the day.

PH does, however, appear to want to move away from BN’s overt pro-Malay ideology by focusing on the B40, the bottom 40 per cent of society in terms of income, instead of the Bumiputera per se.

Unfortunately, PH seems to neglect the middle class in their pursuit of the B40.

The middle class, which form another significant 40 per cent of the Malaysian population, are squeezed with taxes and the rising cost of living, but do not enjoy as many government benefits as the B40.

Poor people, of course, need all the help they can get, but it’s unfair for the State to take the hard-earned ringgit of the middle class for goods and services that are then denied to the very same people funding them.  

Nowhere is this more apparent than in health care. While the B40 get free health screenings (which cost almost RM200 in private diagnostic centres) and free critical illness coverage, the middle class get nothing from the government.

The middle class are even allegedly punished with higher fees at public hospitals just because they previously went to a private facility to get immediately diagnosed and treated for cancer (the first surgery, at least), since they can’t wait three to six months to do so at public hospitals.

Worse still, PH may even be considering social health insurance to boost the public health care system, something which will disproportionately affect the middle class.

The high cost of care for chronic diseases becomes even more terrifying when one has retired from work and no longer enjoys employer-funded health insurance. Your own personal insurance may be insufficient for serious illnesses like cancer.

Your EPF probably isn’t enough even to live a “normal” life on without getting hit by major diseases. EPF’s minimum savings target is RM228,000 by the age of 55, with only 18 per cent meeting that. That small amount – which a huge majority don’t have – only provides a monthly retirement income of RM950 based on a life expectancy of 75 years.  

After four decades of toiling away at jobs you probably hate and paying taxes year after year, you want the government to help you at a time when you need them most, not snub their nose at you disdainfully as if you’re “rich” and undeserving of public goods and services.

Small business owners and white-collar workers are the drivers of Malaysia’s economy. The middle class don’t need government assistance per se; what they need are fair policies that reward their hard work.

The B40 can already rely on the government for Bantuan Sara Hidup cash transfers, university enrollment quotas, deposit-free houses, and petrol subsidies, among other things.

The top 1 per cent, on the other hand, aren’t affected by rising living costs and can hire lawyers to help them avoid or evade taxes, while the middle class pay their fair contributions to the country. The uber-wealthy can also influence policy by making huge secret political donations that do not have to be declared.  

But the middle class have nothing.

We can only desperately hope that we do not get seriously sick as we age and fall into poverty, even if that will be a reality for most of us.

Boo Su-Lyn is CodeBlue editor-in-chief. She is a libertarian, or classical liberal, who believes in minimal state intervention in the economy and socio-political issues.

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