The poor just want a decent life, not envious of the rich

S Arutchelvan

Modified 7 Jan 2020, 6:34 am

COMMENT | Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s labelling of the poor and his logic at the monthly address at the Prime Minister's Department on Monday morning assemble lack humanity and is a humiliation to the millions of workers and people who work hard, day in and day out, just to live on. Only someone with a Trump mentality would be able to appreciate such a speech which is degrading, inhumane and undermining people.

Mahathir was quoted as saying, "Why are they poor? Because they are unproductive and do not contribute to society in a way where society would repay them". He also said the poor should not feel envious of the wealthy because the wealthy pay high taxes and the government uses this money to pay salaries and develop the country.

Who is Mahathir calling unproductive and not contributing to the society? Is he talking about the fisherfolk who go fishing in the dawn and battle their lives in the sea, or is he talking about the paddy farmers in his hometown in Kedah; or is he talking about the factory workers, who work 12 hours and beyond to get overtime to make ends meet; or is he talking about the farmers who ensure we get food on our table, or the nanny who takes care of our children, or is he talking about the plantation workers who hide behind the trees, or the cleaners, or the thousands of people who cross the border to do 3D jobs? 

Or the lorry drivers who park their vehicle in the roadside highways to catch a nap. Or is he talking about the civil servants who he plans to slash their pensions? Or is he talking about those Foodpanda riders delivering food or the Grab drivers? Who is Mahathir labelling as unproductive, not contributing and envious of the rich?

Productivity low?

While most Malaysian gave his cabinet thumbs down or low performance, yet according to International Trade and Industry Minister Darell Leiking (photo), Malaysia's labour productivity grew 2.2pct in 2018, surpassing some developed nations including China, Japan and Australia and remains ahead of selected Asian countries. Even Japan which Mahathir always looks upon performed lower.

Now looking at another study - Are Malaysian Workers Paid Fairly? An assessment of productivity and equity by Athreya Murugasu, Mohamad Ishaq Hakim and Yeam Shin Yau. Their study concludes that Malaysian workers receive lower compensations relative to their contribution to national income from productivity and equity perspectives. 

They argue that Malaysians are paid a lower wage compared to benchmark countries, even after taking into account productivity differences, and secondly, they conclude Malaysia has a lower labour share of income despite its labour-intensive nature. This suggests workers are not adequately compensated for their contributions.

Their study raises some serious issues which Mahathir and the rich don’t want us to question. While employers (bosses) need to be fairly compensated for their respective factor inputs, the question remains, why is the share of compensation to employers higher relatively to workers and why isn’t this reflected in Malaysia’s taxation and distributive policies.

Taxes haven?

Now let’s talk about taxes. Mahathir glorifies the rich for paying taxes. Perhaps he did not hear what Lim Guan Eng said. In one of his post-budget forum, the finance minister said that even by increasing taxes to 30 percent, we’re still among the lowest compared with neighbouring countries.

He added that the government does not believe in harsh and abrupt measures in taxation. Perhaps harsh and abrupt measures are only used to keep minimum wages low.

Lim had also said previously that no tax on the wealthy to prevent shock to financial system. He said the government will not introduce capital gains tax on shares and other taxes on the wealthy in order not to “shock the system”. These measures are to ensure there is no capital flight, according to him.

Why do we need to envy the wealthy who will run and fly away when taxes are increased. So much for Mahathir’s envy on the wealthy and his appreciation on them paying tax, when the minute taxes go up, they are going to abandon him. Unlike the poor which he enjoys attacking because they cannot just take off.

Anyway, how much do the rich people get taxed in Malaysia? Can Mahathir actually give a figure how much tax the richest ten people are paying? While their income is made public yet their tax payment comes under the Official Secret Act, according to answers given in Parliament. And who can forget the government giving Lynas a 12-year tax exemption for, among other things, polluting our country with toxic?

The poor and the balance 80 percent

Taking into purchasing power, wages in Malaysia is one of the lowest in the region. Most of the poor earn monthly salary twice less than the entertainment salaries paid to MPs which is RM 2,500 a month. Our MPs even get a fuel subsidy of RM1,500 a month which is higher than the minimum wage.

According to Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong (photo), in an article published in Malaysiakini on Dec 30, 2019, he said nearly 30 percent of Malaysians polled by Gallup in 2018 felt that they did not have enough money for food, while 23 percent reported not having sufficient money for shelter. Meanwhile, 80 percent of them experience economic insecurity, such as low wages as well as the high cost of housing and transport.

What is shocking about his revelation was that he said, “The B20 poverty category, as defined by the UN, needs welfare, but in the Malaysian context, it appears that the subsequent 60 percent (M60) need better jobs, better pay, better business opportunities, better upward mobility for their children, better housing options and better transport alternatives".

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Prof Philip Alston’s report suggested that Malaysia’s poverty rate is most likely between 16 and 20 percent and Liew, while agreeing to this, also said that beyond the B20 group, the rest of the population – perhaps excluding the top 20 percent – the middle 60 percent (B21-B40, M40) are almost in the same boat.

What was laughable was when Mahathir said "I hope everyone will focus on the nation instead of themselves." If that is true, then why did Mahathir focus his attack on the poor. 

He didn’t question the huge allowance paid to his cabinet. He didn’t address the tax haven to the corporate. He didn’t focus on the huge salaries drawn by GLC CEOs. His target was the poor fellow working day in and day out trying to live a decent job.

S ARUTCHELVAN is PSM deputy chairperson.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.