21 August 2011

Working Lives: Malaysia - from BBC

Working Lives Malaysia will be shown in full on BBC World News on Saturday 27th August 2011 at 0030, 0730, 1930 GMT and on Sunday 28th August at 1230 GMT. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-radio-and-tv-14576686

Six very different characters talk to BBC about their working lives in Malaysia.
1. Mohd Nasir Isa, 54, has been driving a taxi for the last four years.

He counts himself as part of the "urban poor" because he makes about $500 (£307) a month. Mr Nasir says it is not enough to survive on in Kuala Lumpur as a single parent, especially with the price of food going up.

As a Malay, Mr Nasir is entitled to benefits like cheaper housing, and priority in scholarships and government jobs over ethnic Chinese and Indians. This is part of an affirmative action policy to redistribute wealth to the Malay majority but Mr Nasir says he has not benefited from this plan.

After four decades of affirmative action Malay families like Mr Nasir's still earn less than the average Chinese household.

The government acknowledges that some people have manipulated the policy but they have pledged to revamp the system to target the Malays who need it most.

2. Ravindran Devagunam has worked for multinational companies in Singapore and India for 16 years.

He had worked in Malaysia as an aerospace engineer, but felt his opportunities there were limited and left.

This is a pattern that hundreds of thousands educated ethnic Chinese and Indians follow. The World Bank says many of them are being driven away because of an affirmative action policy favouring the Malay-majority.

Without this talent, analysts warn that Malaysia may not reach its goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020, which is why the government is trying to attract them back.

Mr Ravindran is one of the few who have returned. He has been recruited to ensure Prime Minister Najib Razak's economic reforms are carried out, focussing on anti-corruption and the retail sector.

Mr Ravindran says he never dreamed he would return to Malaysia, much less work for the government, but says his new job feels rewarding because he is helping to change the country for the better.

3. Santhosam Palanisamy runs a small shop with his wife in an urban slum just a 30-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Together they make $765 (£470) a month - not enough to live on with three children to raise.
Mr Santhosam says he lives in a rough neighbourhood where young people do not hold steady jobs and fights break out at Hindu temples.

He is working hard to send his eldest daughter to university so she can live a better life, but is struggling to save up $50,000 (£30,700) for the tuition. In the last few months Mr Santhosam has kept his shop open until three in the morning so he can earn more money.

It is a sacrifice he is willing to make, as Mr Santhosam says the opportunities in Malaysia are limited for Indians.

Despite being the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia, Indians make up less than 10 per cent of the population. Many say their concerns are often ignored by the government and they are paid less than the Malays or Chinese.

4. Wardina Safiyyah is a TV host, actress and model.

She used to sashay down the runways across Asia in short skirts and revealing tops.
Then 15 years ago she decided to 'cover up' and expose only her wrists and face as a way to profess her Islamic faith. She, like many Muslim women in Malaysia, began to wear the headscarf or 'tudong' as it is called it in Malay.

The headscarf is the most visible sign of the islamisation of Malaysia, which has been gathering pace since the Iranian revolution of 1979. While some non-Muslims are concerned about this trend, Ms Wardina says her ability to choose what she wants to wear is proof that Malaysia is still a moderate Islamic nation.

Today, Ms Wardina has become a fashion icon for Muslim women in the country and she hopes to redefine the concept of beauty. Ms Wardina feels empowered by her new Islamic attire - forcing people to judge her on her talent rather than her cleavage, she says.

5. Hannah Yeoh, 32, is a first-time politician with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in Selangor state.

Before she was elected into office Ms Yeoh says she was the typical working Malaysian, disillusioned with the country's politics and griping about wages not keeping up with inflation.

A friend encouraged Ms Yeoh to stop complaining and register to vote. A few months later she was asked to run for a seat in the General Elections of 2008.

Ms Yeoh's first election turned out to be a historic one. The opposition coalition of which the DAP is a member ended up taking power in a few states and denied the governing party its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time in nearly four decades.

Suddenly change was in the air. As an ethnic Chinese, Ms Yeoh says she wants to work against race-based politics that she says is entrenched in the national psyche.

This affects even civic basics like birth certificates, which now require the race of a child to be declared. Ms Yeoh and her husband, an ethnic Indian, are trying to challenge that by registering their newborn baby's race as "Malaysian."

Their application was rejected but Ms Yeoh says she will continue to appeal.

6. Hafizal Islam, 22, is one of millions of migrant workers who come to Malaysia in search of a better-paying job.

He earns $470 (£285) a month - three times more than he would earn working as an electrician in his village in Bangladesh, he says - doing odd jobs on a construction site outside of Kuala Lumpur.

Migrant workers like Mr Islam form the backbone of the construction and plantation industries. The government says this reliance on cheap labour has delayed investment from these industries in creating more knowledge-based jobs.

The migrant population has also become the scapegoat for the country's crime rate and other social problems, which is why authorities are restricting the number of foreign workers allowed into the country.

Mr Islam says it is unfair since they are only taking up jobs that Malaysians are not willing to do anymore.

He sends over half of his income back home to help pay for his mother's diabetes medicine and to build a house for his parents.

In an effort to save more money Mr Islam lives on the construction site and rarely leaves it. Not much of a life for a young man - but Mr Islam says it is the only way to save up enough to have a family of his own in Bangladesh.


I am sure many Malaysians can identify with what is being said by these people interviewed by BBC. And a lot more could be said, could be expressed, could be shared - if we have a truly caring and honest government, who puts the people first.

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