This particular period, our experience of COVID-19 and the Movement Control Order (MCO), as many others have also pointed out, has made visible and felt throughout the world what some of us have long realised, that our economic system is incredibly flawed.
Many more of us may have also noticed that the law doesn’t apply to everyone equally. It’s not equally enforced depending on who you are and what social status you hold. For the time being and for the purposes of this post, we’d like to discuss our economic system.
What may have escaped many is the scary fact that it is a system of legalised exploitation. A system where the rich and their corporations get away with evading tax, and pay themselves 50,000 to 100,000 times more than they would pay their lowest paid staff. The difference does not shock the filthy rich. They think they are entitled to that wealth. Yet, this period has shown that without a critical mass who have purchasing power, our economic system immediately breaks down.
Research has shown that labour does not do well in such a system. In fact, if you only have your labour to offer to survive economically, expect to be impoverished further. This is the reality of many, captured as well in Khazanah Research Institute’s “State of Households”. Do have a read of their research reports on this topic if you haven’t.
Despite the difficult times, those who don’t have much have stepped up. Ordinary people fast became part of the #KitaJagaKita movement (which some politicians tried to appropriate). We became witnesses to the substantive help of ordinary people (women, men, LGBT, migrant workers, refugees). More importantly, we feel the efforts of ordinary people and how it makes a difference compared to the efforts of the rich.
Ordinary people have donated from their own pockets, despite some not having any income at this time and are worried about their future. Some are dipping into their savings to help others.
We see performing artists come together to try to help us get through the feelings of isolation.
Do we see the rich coming together to discuss and see how they can help out?
Do we see the rich questioning the economic system they have so successfully exploited?
Do we see the rich reflecting on their complicity in building the pre-conditions that enable the crisis today (and the crisis is not just Covid-19)?
No. They’re likely thinking how to make disaster capitalism work even more effectively at this time (Do watch Naomi Klein on YouTube on “Disaster Capitalism”).
A few corporations and foundations did step up but do remember that it’s because of our consumption as ordinary people that they were able to do so. It’s not because the rich themselves took money out of their own pockets to extend this help. We are a little sceptical about statements that say a portion of the sales will go to whatever, because when they don’t dare tell you the percentage, that’s when you have to be suspicious of the “help”. On most occasions, money from the corporations to help people in need during this crisis comes from the consumption of ordinary people like us.
We see ordinary people arranging for food packages for those in need.
We see ordinary people arranging for survival packages for girls, including sanitary pads for women and girls to address period poverty during this time.
We see ordinary people highlighting and calling for urgent action knowing that those who face domestic violence will be more at risk and may even die.
We see ordinary people, the LGBT, yes, the LGBT are ordinary too, trying to organise and raise funds for fellow LGBT who continue to be marginalised and left to die from hunger.
We see ordinary people, despite struggling already, counter the racism, xenophobia and bigotry of those who are against the Rohingya coming to our shores. May you never know what it’s like to be a refugee.
Among the suggestions of what can be done post-MCO, Nur Sofea Hasmira Azahar who is a research analyst at think tank EMIR Research had this to say:
a) “We could start by adopting measures undertaken by the Chinese firms, which have slowly resumed production after a two-month lockdown. One of them is for the industrial players to venture to other categories of business that boom during the pandemic period. One example that could be taken is healthcare.”
b) “Businesses that are bold enough can retool their production systems to manufacture the almost-scarce essentials to protect Malaysians against the invisible enemy (Covid-19) such as face masks, given Malaysia’s high dependency on imported face masks.That way, Malaysia can mitigate the shortage of supply as there are only a few major manufacturers in the country and panic buying has caused limited supply.”
The problem with the above suggestions (and likely many more to come from other experts) is that it’s based on the same economic system, it’s about working within the current economic system that has failed so many.
It’s about how best to “exploit” the current disaster and still make profits despite the fact that there are more people with less or zero income, less resources and dwindling savings. There is no suggestion of changing the overall economic system, but just adapting our survival skills within the same system, and persistently without regard for our environment, our environment that has thrived when human beings are stopped from doing the so-called productive activities of our existing economic system.
If we do this, try to survive within a failed system, we will fail. It’s only logical. It doesn’t address the millions who will be unemployed and who will likely die of hunger if they have no savings. And if not addressed, we will be sure to see a people’s revolution of some form of other. Because desperate people will eventually get together and rock the boats of others. Look at the French revolution. It wasn’t just the monarchy but the petty bourgeoisie, the small traders, who tried to gate-keep on their wealth, and became impoverished and eventually had to join the working class as well.
1) Make it illegal for corporations or any body to make a profit of 200% and above.
It’s not difficult to hear of profit-making that has reached 500%, 1000%, but this cannot go on. This excessive profit-making forces many to be left behind because it shifts the distribution of wealth to benefit a few.
2) Make it compulsory for corporations and individuals in the high income level bracket to contribute to a public healthcare system that serves all, irrespective of nationality.
The national budget should also have a heavier emphasis on prioritising substantive allocations for healthcare, irrespective of nationality. This includes ensuring that women and girls are safe from violence, which will also mean enacting the Gender Equality Act and the Sexual Harassment Act.
3) Ensure that workers at non-management level own at least 50% of any corporation.
This will help ensure better distribution of wealth and will encourage workers to look out for each other when a crisis hits. If corporations are worried about hostile take-overs and indiscriminate selling of their shares, then workers too as shareholders will be worried about this too, and will find a way to work collectively to buy back the shares from workers who leave the corporation. Workers after all are most at risk of being sacked when a company is bought over.
4) Guarantee a living wage for all irrespective of nationality
While some may argue that we cannot afford to pay everyone a living wage, excessive profit-making of corporations and how some corporations earn more than most countries show that we can. The amount of wealth amassed by the T10 and T20 show that we can. The amount of food wastage that happens on a daily basis before the MCO show that we can. We just need
to have a mindset that is social entrepreneurial, to distribute excess to where it is needed and not to amass excesses for ourselves, just because we can’t make a profit out of it. In the current economic system, we’d rather waste than give away.
5) A social security system for all irrespective of nationality and contract status
All employees and labourers must have access to SOCSO and EPF, and must have contributions made for them to benefit from these.
6) Revisit Wage Payment Systems and Improve Financial Security of Workers
Our wage system is flawed. The paper work required to safe guard the rights of labourers is not necessarily forthcoming from all employers and not easily enforced by labourers who lack the documentation. Anyone who works in Malaysia should be able to open a bank account, and should be provided at least one week’s pay in advance to cover needed expenses. There has to be more compassion for those who may not have savings and have to survive, and cannot wait for a month’s pay at the end of a month before they can cover the bills, especially for food. Make personal financial management a compulsory subject in school and don’t hold back on teaching everyone on what can actually help them benefit. When everyone benefits, the whole system benefits.
7) Ensure food security, not only at the national level but at the household level as well
Introduce sustenance farming (or what is more widely known as subsistence farming) to every household. Farming can be done in various ways even for those without access to land, such as sack farming.
Food security at the household level should be measured based on this sustenance farming, and not based on income, because during times like this, employers can stop and have stopped paying wages. Some are lucky to still receive half wages.
8) Enabling movement of labour is critical
The borders can remain and the screening can be done for murderers, rapists, traffickers, and so on, but allowing labour to freely move in and out of countries for work (and not only at expat level) is critical.
8) Safe working conditions
Safe and healthy working conditions must be provided to workers, including elimination of overcrowded working areas, long working hours without fair compensation, and any factors that hinder them from staying in or entering the workforce. This is not only about physical safety and comfort, but also mentally. Workers should be free from all forms of harassment including sexual harassment.
9) Recognition of the economic value of reproductive labour
For a long time, reproductive labour performed by women, whether formally or informally, i.e. domestic work, cleaning, has remained undervalued and unpaid, despite existence of constitutional rights for equality. Women in the workforce face various forms of discrimination for childbirth, taking time off for childcare or to perform household duties. As the world retreats to our home for healing, there is no denying on the quintessential values provided by reproductive labour in keeping us safe, healthy and resilient. The nation must reorganise its economic structure and work culture to recognise that home and reproductive labour is part of the economy and extension of the labour market, rather than as a separate, invisible space.
10) Ensure a minimum square foot living quarters per person/family
We know that government housing for the poor such as the PPR flats, and other densely populated low-cost housing is always short of space. These living spaces are by far the worse planned and sometimes, it’s a joke to call them living spaces. The corridors are dark and narrow, the area where a family is to live is sometimes only a one-room flat with one bathroom. The issue of adequate living space and lighting, and safety, have to be addressed if we want to ensure that we do not have a situation where a disease or virus spreads easily.
11) Immediately implement a plan of action to address our climate crisis
Introduce quota productions that use/abuse our water resources, ensure our rivers are clean as they are today, and enforce strict laws against the use of pollluting vehicles and the use of vehicles at peak traffic hours. Much, much more needs to be done if we want to keep our current clean skies and water, and one could say that the rains have actually returned.
12) Ensure that royalty from natural resources of the country return to the people, and not to governments and corporations
Natural resources should belong to the peoples in the country, and royalty should return to the peoples where natural resources are collected (mined, cut, etc.). This includes commercialisation of traditional knowledge and medicinal plants. Since people in power have no political will to eradicate corruption, this would be the best approach.
The above are some ideas and suggestions. They are not necessarily “perfect” suggestions, but it is our attempt to try to encourage all of us to think differently and to make a commitment to completely overhaul our flawed economic system. We fully encourage you to share your ideas as well. Any disrespectful, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic comments will not be entertained.