MPs must work for the empowerment and welfare of the people

Congratulations to Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed on his appointment as the Prime Minister of Malaysia. With his past long and varied experience in leading the country, he will be able to take Malaysia to greater heights and prepare the way for a smooth succession.

I thank God and congratulate the people of Malaysia for participating peacefully and responsibly in the democratic process to elect a new government and to accept the results of the election. We have set a good example for other countries to emulate, particularly those Muslim states that are still ruled by dictators and absolute monarchs. We should be proud of our achievement.

I thank the police and other government agencies for maintaining peace and order throughout the elections, when, sometimes, emotions were running high among the supporters of the candidates.

The transition of power from the former government to the present one was smooth except for one hitch, the unnecessary delay in the swearing in of the Prime Minister. The results were confirmed by the election authorities by 5 a.m. on Thursday but the swearing in ceremony had to wait over 16 hours, until 9.30 p.m. last night, after repeated postponements.

Tun Mahathir was made to wait from 5p.m. until past 9.30 p.m. at the Istana before the ceremony started. It must be remembered that Tun is the elected leader of the Malaysian people and he must be given due respect. The delay gave rise to unwanted fears, tension, speculation and adverse international publicity.

Our Constitution is crystal clear on the appointment of the Prime Minister by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. He shall appoint a member of the House of Representatives who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the House. In exercising his judgment he can rely on the reports by relevant government officials.

In the instant case, there was no challenge to the request by Tun Mahathir to be appointed as the Prime Minister, and his support from the majority of parliamentarians could have been easily verified within a short time. There is no requirement for parties in a coalition to agree on the appointment or, as happened in Selangor some years ago, to submit a list of candidates for the Ruler to choose the Menteri Besar. Appointment of the Prime Minister must be done expeditiously in order to ensure continuity of government.

I call on the present government not to be obsessed with economic growth but to seriously address the issues of poverty and growing disparity in our society, and the destruction of our environment to satisfy the greed for profits. It must put an end to crony capitalism and wage a war on corruption, particularly corruption among politicians and senior government officials. As the Arabic saying goes “A fish rots from the head down.”

I appeal to all elected representatives, both from the Government and the Opposition, to jointly work for the empowerment and welfare of the people, and to set aside their personal and party interests.

Press Release, May 11, 2018

4th Industrial Revolution (4IR): doom or boom?

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) takes great concern at increasing reports of workers losing their jobs due to the advent of the “4th Industrial Revolution” (4IR), which is touted to replace many skills and functions with automation aided by software.

The laying off of employees, especially senior workforce members who have operated in their respective fields for decades, due to the introduction of automation and technology is an alarming phenomenon that has not been given due recognition.

On 3 Jan 2018, Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Datuk Shamsudin Baradan cautioned that automation will continue to be a factor for job losses this year as more and more companies turn to automation, usage of robotics and information technology. Noting that some 18,000 jobs were lost when banks adopted higher use of information technology in 2016, he said the insurance industry is also heading the same way with possibly more substantial job losses.

The Association of Banks Malaysia then remarked on 15 Jan 2018 that voluntary separation schemes (VSS) by banks in Malaysia are part of banks’ efforts to re-align their internal strategies in light of “advancement of technology which is more system-driven”. It said with the emergence of financial technology and digitalisation in the banking sector, banks may take on approaches to trim their workforce in certain areas of operations while increasing workforce in other key focus areas, in obvious reference to those related to information technology.

On 15 Dec 2017, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak called on the people to be prepared to face 4IR in order to develop the country. He drew attention to the statement by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak earlier that the people had no choice because they had to accept the fact that “Industry 4.0” would bring success to the vision of National Transformation 2050.

CAP begs to differ, and calls on the Malaysian government and the private sector to take cognisance of the drawbacks associated with the mushrooming of 4IR. This includes the impact it will have on society and the economy, especially in relation to loss of jobs to automation, and the redundancy it would create for practitioners of various existing skills and trades.

There have been several warning signals from international authorities on the dangers posed by the 4IR “revolution”.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks Report 2017 cautioned that as the 4IR accelerates, many individuals face a potential crisis. These include lower-skilled workers more easily displaced by automation, part-time and self-employed workers without access to employer-sponsored protections, and older workers and retirees without sufficient savings or pensions. “A failure to take action risks both the deterioration of government finances and the exacerbation of social unrest, especially at this time of slow economic growth and widening inequality,” the report warned.

At the WEF meeting on ASEAN in Phnom Penh in May last year, Wolfgang Jamann, secretary general and chief executive officer of CARE International, also commented that technological change is overwhelming entire societies, not just older generations. He said the changes are happening so fast that we need to recognise it’s not just about the opportunities created, but also about the people being left behind.

In actual fact, the negative effects of automation and the 4IR trend, including on inherited knowledge and skills, are much more serious than most people are willing to admit. They pose a distinct risk in diminishing unique human intellectual capabilities, which have evolved over centuries, to survive and thrive in various situations without dependence on such artificial energy-based technologies.

We have already seen the disappearance of many traditional artisans, textile weavers, jewellers, toll-gate collectors, newspaper vendors, phone exchange operators, postal carriers, insurance underwriters, bank tellers and workers replaced by e-payment systems.

In April last year, the Khazanah Research Institute said in a report on technology, employment and the Malaysian economy that 54% of all jobs in Malaysia could be at high risk of being displaced by technology in the next two decades. The report described the number as “alarming” but not unexpected, given similar findings for other countries. It said four out of five of these jobs are semi-skilled. “It is Malaysians who are most affected, not foreign workers – 90% of all semi-skilled jobs are held by Malaysians,” it noted. Cutting across all major economic sectors, more than 70% of all semi-skilled and 80% of all low-skilled jobs are at high risk, with about 40% of skilled jobs at medium risk, the report said.

A major motive for companies to get rid of workers, by introducing automation as an alternative, is to maximise profits. The adoption of technologies that do not demand salaries and legal benefits, as are required for hired personnel, in effect helps to create corporations without a human face. It is about stretching profits before the interests of people and workers. This is also true during times of economic recession.

The marginalisation of workers under the 4IR assists in making wealth become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of people. It widens the income gap and the already growing disparity within modern societies.

It is incumbent on the employers to undertake all possible measures to retain old staff members who would otherwise be victimised by such onslaught of 4IR. The companies must provide viable alternatives such as in retraining them and letting them work three days a week instead.

CAP calls on all parties to ensure protection and preservation of our traditional resources, both cultural and physical, before it is too late. The situation needs to be arrested – without affecting sustainable economic progress. We commit a grave irreversible error by getting carried away in promoting the surge of 4IR, to the extent of harming to our own people’s sustenance and careers, and losing the very living cultural and socio-economic assets of our society.

LETTER TO EDITOR, 26th January 2018

Don’t sign revised TPP agreement, CAP calls on government

According to news reports, the 11 countries that agreed to the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), without the United States, have now concluded negotiations to sign an agreement very similar to the TPPA. Malaysia is one of the 11 countries.

Yet the Malaysian public has been kept in the dark on these recent negotiations and on the new agreement.

According to news reports, the new agreement known as CPTPP, is almost the same as the TPPA, except for a few minor changes.

This is bad news as the TPPA would have had major bad effects on the Malaysian economy and society.  The new agreement will be worse in that there would not even be the benefit of selling more exports to the United States.

CAP calls on the government to reveal the contents of the new agreement.  CAP also calls on the government not to sign the new agreement as it will have negative effects on the Malaysian public.

Since US President Trump said the USA would not ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) when he took office a year ago, the remaining 11 TPP countries have been trying to find a way to bring the TPP to life without the USA.

Yesterday in Tokyo, the 11 TPP countries (including Malaysia) concluded negotiations on what is now called the ‘Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Apart from changing the name to make it look different and better, the CPTPP keeps all the US-imposed TPP rules except for a few minor changes Canada got and the suspension of the implementation of a few provisions until the USA rejoins the TPP. Some of the TPP amendments that Canada obtained include changes to the TPP’s automotive rules and its culture exception.What changes to the many problematic TPP rules  did Malaysia get (as opposed to mere temporary suspensions of certain provisions until the USA rejoins the TPP?

The Canadian Prime Minister was willing to walk out of the CPTPP negotiations in Vietnam in November 2017 to show how serious he was about getting the amendments he needed to protect Canada’s national interest. Why didn’t Malaysia take a similarly tough position to insist on the amendments it needs?

The 20 TPP provisions which were merely suspended include some of the problematic intellectual property rules (such as broader and longer monopolies on medicines and longer copyright protection), but not others: such as the requirement for Malaysia to join UPOV91, a treaty which a study found would require farmers to pay four times more for seeds , prevent them swapping seed they have saved from harvests and require Malaysia to remove its safeguards against biopiracy from our Protection of New Plant Varieties Act. Even the TPP provisions which have been suspended are only until the USA rejoins the TPP, so it is not an effective safeguard.

In the meantime, the other TPP provisions live on in the CPTPP and allow the USA to free ride so their companies can enjoy the benefits without the USA having to give up anything (e.g lower tariffs on Malaysian exports to the USA). This means that in the CPTPP, Malaysia gets the costs of the TPP without the main benefit: increased exports to the USA. Has the Malaysian government done a new cost-benefit analysis of the CPTPP and what were the results?

This CPTPP process has been even more secretive than the original (very secretive and unaccountable) TPP negotiations. The only notice of the final CPTPP round was on Friday 19 January afternoon Canadian time in a Canadian news article before the negotiations started the following Monday (22 January) in Japan.[1] This has allowed the CPTPP negotiators to decide – without consulting affected Malaysians (who will face the costs in terms of increased job losses and higher cost of living etc)- which of the terrible TPP provisions to suspend.  In the end, the negotiators decided that no provisions will be permanently deleted despite all the problems with the TPP’s US-imposed rules.

One year ago after President Trump indicated the USA would not ratify the TPP, Dato’ Sri Mustapa Mohamed promised in a MITI media release that ‘Domestically, MITI and all relevant Ministries will engage with various stakeholders to get their views and feedback on the latest development of the TPP and the way forward.’[2]We have been waiting for a year and the CPTPP negotiations have already concluded and still none of us have yet been consulted on it. We know of no civil society consultations or systematic consultation of the Malaysian private sector affected by such a decision. The MITI Minister has thus broken his promise to the public.

The CPTPP text must be published immediately so Malaysians can at least see what has already been agreed in their name before it is signed[A9] . Even the original TPP text was published before legal scrubbing and before it was translated (and again afterwards). The CPTPP has already been legally scrubbed according to the Singaporean government,[3] so there is even less reason to not release the text.

CAP calls on the government not to sign the CPTPP as planned on 8 March 2018 in Chile.  This is because of:  (1)  the total lack of consultations on the CPTPP,  (2) the failure to release the CPTPP text,  (3) the failure to do a cost-benefit analysis of the CPTPP, and (4) the news reports that all of the problematic provisions from the TPP are still in the CPTPP (only very few have only been temporarily suspended).

CAP believes it is unwise of the government to sign on to an agreement that obliges Malaysia to undertake binding obligations to change laws and many socio-economic policies that has very adverse impacts on the Malaysian public and society, and yet has very little benefits for Malaysians.  So far the government has not explained in any comprehensible way why it has chosen to take this irrational step.

[1] http://nationalpost.com/news/politics/canada-to-attend-first-trans-pacific-partnership-meeting-since-trudeaus-apec-no-show

[2] http://www.miti.gov.my/miti/resources/Media_Release_-_Response_to_the_US_Withdrawal_from_the_TPPA.pdf

[3] https://www.mti.gov.sg/NewsRoom/SiteAssets/Pages/Conclusion-of-Negotiations-on-the-Comprehensive-and-Progressive-Agreement-for-Trans-Pacific-Partnership/Press%20Release%20on%20conclusion%20of%20CPTPP%20(Final)%20(002).pdf

Press Release, 25 January 2018

BANKRUPTCY CASES AILS THE NATION

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) is concerned about the number of Malaysians driven to bankruptcy or on the brink of it. More than quarter of a million people – 294,000 Malaysians to be exact – are involved in bankruptcy cases. It is largely attributed to their failure to settle their hire purchase loans, credit card loans, personal loans, housing loans and social guarantors (due to errant debtors).

According to a 2013 news report, most of those bankrupts were from the 35 to 44 (34 per cent) age group. It is worrying that some 22,663 Malaysians under the age of 35 have been reported bankrupt from 2011 to September 2015. They are supposed not to be smudged by bankruptcy particularly at this point in life when they are building their career and family.

It was found that the primary causes of bankruptcy between 2011 and 2015 are caused by defaulting loan payments, particularly on vehicle purchase loan (28,374 cases; 27.94 per cent); housing loan (21,697 cases; 21.36 per cent); personal loan (20,727 cases; 20.41 per cent); and business loan (11,899 cases; 11.71 per cent).

Car ownership in Malaysia is third highest in the world and the intent to purchase is the highest. It is nothing to crow about because, as revealed in the news report, one of four people driven to bankruptcy was caused by defaulting on vehicle-loan.

Many Malaysians also tend to live beyond their means, thereby making them vulnerable to being unable to repay their loan. This does not only happen to those taking loans to buy vehicles but for other purposes as well, such as taking personal loans to buy a house, or finance higher education. As a result of this they stretch their budget beyond their means.

As a means to encourage such cashless trend, Automated Teller Machines (ATM) cards have now included a ‘debit card’ feature thereby exposing a person to overspending unless he manages his expenditure and balance in his account well.

Aggravating the situation, there are about 3.6 million credit card holders in the country with a total credit card debt totalling at RM36.9 billion as in June 2017. There is little surprise that three out of five people preferred to use the credit card despite job and economic uncertainties because it allows a person to spend ahead of their earnings and the consequences can be disastrous.

Forced by circumstances, these people resort to taking up loans at financial institutions if they can but likely not because of their bad credit record. Hence they may turn to Ah Longs for loans. If they approach Ah Longs for loans then they exposed themselves to a different set of problems such as high interest rate, harassment, and threat.

Besides those in the bankruptcy statistics, there are an estimated 100,000 civil servants who are at risk of going bankrupt in 2017. They would not be the first batch because as of 1 May 2017, about 3,000 of them had already gone bankrupt. The 100,000 who may soon turned bankrupts constitute 6.25 per cent of the estimated 1.6 million civil servants in the country.

The catalyst to the dire situation is the existence of more than 20 financial institutions and cooperatives providing loans to civil servants. Repayment of the loan is by means of deducting their monthly salary.

Although it is an easy way to safely recover the loan through automatic salary deduction, we have to acknowledge the fact that it encourages government servants to spend more than their means.

Unfortunately, these financial institutions and cooperatives often do not cross-check the background of their applicants. Therefore, an applicant who is eligible for a RM50,000 loan could apply from four financial institutions, ended up borrowing a total sum of RM200,000. Some applicants faked their salary slips to obtain loans that they are not qualified for.

The situation of civil servants having to take loans was blamed on the escalating cost of living. Although it might be true, they have to learn to live within their means because taking loans will only worsen the situation as they have to service the loan and the interest which has a cumulative effect.

Online shopping is another financial trap as consumers are able to make purchases easily and without the immediate feeling of upsetting their monthly budget. At the next pay day, they may just pay a minimum required by the bank and thus interest is charged on the balance that they owe while they continue on with their spending habit. Under such circumstances, they dig themselves deeper into a debt that they have difficulty in extricating themselves from.

Over-commitment is a major concern particularly when there are retrenchments. In 2016, 32,552 Malaysians were retrenched; and another 14,848 came under the Voluntary Separation Scheme (VSS). How are they going to service their housing and car loans when their future is uncertain? Financial institutions are certainly not sympathetic about their woes.

Some people are forced to take loans from Ah Longs to pay their debts rather than the prospect of becoming bankrupts. Certainly this is not a solution as the high interest rate is going to cause the debt to mount and Ah Longs will use threats and violence to get their money back. When this situation happens, it is going to break up families or push people to contemplate suicide.

The government amended the Bankruptcy Act 1967 (BA 1967) which is now known as the Insolvency Act 1967 (IA 1967). Under the BA 1967, a person can be made a bankrupt by owing a creditor a minimum of RM30,000 but IA1967 now raised it to a minimum of RM50,000. Although there will be fewer bankrupts by raising the amount owed before a person can be served bankruptcy papers, it is still not financially comforting to be on the verge to be one. With the amendments to the BA 1967, the Insolvency Department is working to release an estimated 50,000 persons from bankruptcy.

Nonetheless we are concerned about the spending pattern of Malaysians which is driving many of them to bankruptcy or to its brink.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR, 15 January 2018

Make Public State Action Plan on Paired Road Projects

The Tanjung Bungah Residents Association (TBRA) deeply regrets the approval by the Department of Environment (DOE) of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the three paired road projects on 10 November this year.

TBRA has learnt about this from the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) who were informed about the EIA approval by the DOE.We also have learnt that the Penang State Government was required by the DOE to submit an ‘Action Plan’ based on all the issues raised by the public, prior to the EIA approval and this was complied with by the State.

TBRA therefore calls on the Penang State Government to make public the Action Plan so that we can assess if our concerns have been addressed effectively.

We also want to know if the Action Plan has addressed concerns arising from the most recent floods and landslides that occurred on November 5 this year and whether and how this has been taken into account in the construction of the roads.

TBRA had raised our concerns regarding the North Coastal Paired Road (NCPR) from Teluk Bahang to Tanjung Bungah both to the DOE and the Penang State Government.

TBRA had pointed out serious environmental and social impacts of the NCPR especially for thousands of residents living along the road alignment.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that the heavy rains that resulted in the Nov 5 landslides and floods involve parts of the areas along the proposed NCPR road alignment in TanjungBungah.

The EIA had revealed that about 46% of the proposed road will be on terrain with a higher than 25 degree slope, are well known to be ‘sensitive hill lands.’

How and whether the Penang State Government and the DOE have addressed this concern remains a mystery to us.

TBRA hadappealed to the DOE to reject the EIA and had called on the Penang Government to have a dialogue session with all residents along the road alignment of the to explain the full details of the road and seek their feedback.

We deeply regret that our calls and concerns have thus far not been met by either the DOE or the State Government.

Now that the State has provided an Action Plan to the DOE, it is vital for this to be made public urgently and to seek public feedback, as this will be in line with the spirit of the State Government being transparent and accountable to the people of Penang.

TBRA also pointed out and continues to maintain that the ‘saving’ of 14 minutes of time travelled between Tanjung Bungah and Teluk Bahang at a cost of RM 1 billion for the NCPR will soon vanish once more traffic demand is generated by the new road in the coming years.

What has also not been made clear how the State is going to disperse the traffic from the NCPR that ends in Lembah Permai inTanjung Bungah to Straits Quay.

It therefore incumbent on and imperative for the State Government to be fully transparent on the need for the NCPR, the implications of this to the residents affected by the road, what alternatives were considered and deemed not feasible and how the Action Plan addresses all the concerns of the public.

Press Release, 29 December 2017