Better deal for Malaysians?

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 April 2013 © Selangor Times

MALAYSIANS are finally going to the polls on May 5 after intense speculation for more than a year.

BN chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak pledged more cash handouts and development projects in a manifesto themed “Aku Janji” unveiled last Saturday.The ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is going all out to regain the two-thirds majority in Parliament and five states it lost -in 2008.

Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which aims to unseat the half-a-century-old regime, promises lower petrol, water and electricity prices, to reform public institutions and wipe out corruption in its manifesto titled “Pakatan Harapan Rakyat” released earlier in February.

BN & PR manifestos' cover

The manifestos provide a gauge for our 13.27 million voters the direction BN and PR plan to take our country, particularly for some three million people who will be voting for the first time.

So how do the two coalitions size up against each other? Selangor Times speaks to independent analysts and academics to get their immediate thoughts.

Business-as-usual for BN

Merdeka Centrer for Opinion Research programme director Ibrahim Suffian thinks BN’s manifesto is an extension and report card of Najib’s attempted reforms.

“It has a lot of explanations about what the (incumbent) government has done and the future projects that they want to put in place,” he said in a phone interview.

Najib took over the premiership from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi exactly four years ago.

Notable reforms implemented during his administration include the abolition of the Internal Security Act, emergency laws and annual licence for newspapers.

He also set up the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (Pemandu) which introduced the “Government Transformation Programme (GTP)” and “Economic Transformation Programme (ETP)” in a bid to overhaul the bloated civil service and national economy.

Yet, Najib’s tenure has also been plagued by corruption scandals involving the National Feedlot Corporation, submarine deals and most recently, native customary land grab in Sarawak.

Ibrahim pointed out that as the incumbent government, BN has found it difficult to tackle corruption, cut wastage in the public sector and address other systemic problems in the economy.

“They promised to carry out open tenders but this has not been done,” he noted.

As such, the BN manifesto focuses on giving more cash back for the public and infrastructure development such as building more roads, highways and schools.

In comparison, the independent pollster said PR offers more groundbreaking proposals to promote good governance.

The three-party alliance has vowed to restructure the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, restore its integrity by focusing on big corruption cases as well as reviewing anti-graft laws.

PR leaders have also agreed to abolish the Official Secrets Act and enact a Freedom of Information Act after earning brickbats from critics for failing to include it in their manifesto.

Populist policies

However, Ibrahim and political economist Prof Dr Edmund Terence Gomez think that both manifestos are populist in nature.

While BN pledged to give more cash to low-income earners and increase subsidies, PR said it would lower fuel and utility tariffs, abolish the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) and provide free tertiary education.

In addition, both coalitions have promised to raise government servants’ salary.

“They didn’t deal with the issue of how the government is going to pay for it,” said Gomez, an academic from Universiti Malaya Faculty of Economics and Administration.

He said the country relies on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to drive economic growth but inadequate attention has been paid to economic reforms needed to spur the growth of SMEs.

To be fair, PR did mention it would set up a RM500 million innovation fund and divert government assistance from large industries to SMEs if it comes into federal power.

And BN has mentioned in its manifesto that it would implement a plan for the “transformation” of SMEs and set up a National Trading Company to promote SMEs’ products in overseas markets.

But Gomez hit out at Najib’s administration for failing to implement significant reforms under the much-touted New Economic Model, ETP and GTP.

“They have identified the problems in our government, economy, education and came out with recommendations.

“But they have had problems instituting the reforms over the past four years. Why should we assume that they will be able to keep their promises (in the manifesto)?” he said.

Responsible promises

Gomez acknowledged that increasing the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia for singles up to RM600 and households to RM1,200 is a highly effective way for BN to garner electorate support among t  e poor.

The cash handout will provide temporary relief to low-income groups.

“But is it sustainable? Will it solve the issue of poverty?” questioned the public intellectual.

He noted that Sabah, Sarawak and other states in Peninsular Malaysia such as Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis remain the poorest states in the country.

And BN has failed to address the widening regional development gap despite being in government for 55 years.

Although a manifesto is a set of election promises to woo voters, it should still be based on sound policies that are feasible and sustainable.

BN & PR key promises

Gomez highlighted that both coalitions have pledged to build more affordable homes without dealing with the core problem of escalating construction cost and property speculation.

Meanwhile, PR also seems to be contradicting itself by vowing to improve public transportation, reduce traffic congestion yet slashing car and fuel prices at the same time.

With cheaper cars and travelling costs, the public will have little incentive to adopt public transport.

“It will likely congest our streets even more (and increase carbon emission). At an age where everyone is concerned about climate change, is it a wise move?” Gomez remarked.

A better Malaysia

Finally, providing quality public education is central to eradicating poverty and nurturing the human resources needed to steer Malaysia towards achieving developed status. But the declining standard of our education system has become a common complaint among parents, teachers and students.

Educationist Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon said the BN’s approach to education has been a failure.

“They talk about creating a world-class education system but I don’t see how they can achieve it,” Toh said in a phone interview.

The retired academic believes under PR, at least there is hope that greater emphasis will be placed on meritocracy in the recruitment and promotion of teachers.

“There’s also hope that there will be greater decentralisation, providing state education departments and district offices more flexibility in the implementation of education policies,” said the soft-spoken Toh.

He said decentralisation in decision-making in the government has helped to raise education standards in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.

The former Gerakan politician added that PR is more forthcoming in its pledges to provide equal resources to schools from various language streams.

On top of that, the young coalition vowed to loosen the government’s stranglehold on our tertiary institutions and restore academic freedom by abolishing the Universities and University Colleges Act.

Overall, PR seems to offer a bolder manifesto to reform our government, economy and education.

But aside from the manifestos, the quality of candidates put forth by political parties will influence voters’ decision in the polls too.

Come May 5, whichever coalition makes it to Putrajaya, it is up to citizens to hold the political parties accountable to their election promises and ensure the new government implements responsible policies to develop the country.


Sidebar: What’s in it for the women and indigenous people?

WOMEN make up half the population in the country but local political parties have been slow to adopt policies to promote gender equality.

Both Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) have pledged to increase women’s participation in decision-making roles in their manifestos.

But are they serious in removing obstacles that hinder female participation in politics and the economy?

In the 12rh General Election, only 23 women were elected to Parliament, making up slightly over a tenth of the 222 seats.

The statistics are even lower in state legislatures, where there were only 27 BN female lawmakers and 21 from PR out of the 576 state seats.

Women’s rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah thinks both coalitions should put forth more women candidates in the upcoming polls if they were committed to their pledge.

“We definitely need more women in Parliament and State Assemblies,” said the executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) in an email interview.

She pointed out that both coalitions are more interested in giving out cash to married women in their manifestos.

Policies that empower young or single women are notably missing.

“Both are weak in substantive empowerment due to the welfare approach. There’s nothing wrong in giving money but it’s a short-term measure,” said Maria.

The saving grace for BN, she said, is that the coalition claimed it would implement schemes to support women working from home.

“But what about men who choose to work from home? Why are they not encouraged?” questioned the activist.

She said the policy is based on a false, stereotypical assumption that only women work from home.

Furthermore, Maria took the BN regime to task for failing to implement significant gender reforms after 55 years in government.

“Women’s groups have been fighting for the recognition of other forms of rape in our laws such as marital rape and gang rape, the review of Syariah laws that discriminate against Muslim women, the implementation of sex education to reduce sexual violence against women,” she cited as examples.

She added that there has been little effort by the BN regime to address the increase of women affected by HIV and AIDS, human trafficking and review the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

Maria gave PR credit for addressing some of these issues in its Agenda for Women, which was launched separately last year.

It also promised to adopt gender budgeting, which is about breaking down government data to ensure public resources are allocated equally to both sexes.

“It will shift the burden of women’s welfare from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to the Health, Education, Transport and other ministries that also deal with women’s problems,” she explained.

Meanwhile, both BN and PR have promised to uphold the indigenous people’s native customary land rights (NCR).

However, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns director Dr Colin Nicholas said if BN was sincere, its federal and state governments should have withdrawn from court battles over land disputes with the indigenous people.

“Why make free promises now?” questioned the academic-turned-activist.

He highlighted that PR has vowed to gazette 141,000 hectares of Orang Asli land but he said that is less than 20% of their customary land.

“It’s not enough and it’s what the BN government recognises as well,” said Nicholas in a phone interview.

While the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government has tried to gazette Orang Asli reserve over the past five years, the Kelantan government has been embroiled in land disputes with the Orang Asli there.

“It’s very difficult to ask the Orang Asli there to vote for PAS,” he said.

Nicholas said both BN and PR should come forth and support the UN Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, implement laws to comply with the it if the coalitions are truly for indigenous people.

Not talking about sex: At whose expense?

by Gan Pei Ling / 2 August 2010 © The Nut Graph

SOME government officials have recently come up with “creative” ways to solve the problems of teenage pregnancy and baby dumping in Malaysia. To curb teenage pregnancies, the Education Ministry said it was encouraging students to submit written pledges that they would not engage in premarital sex. To solve the problem of baby dumping, Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam announced that the state planned to set up a special school for pregnant teens.


These suggestions may seem well-intentioned for some. But they are actually problematic. So what if students submit a written pledge? Youths who are curious about sex and want to experiment would do it before marriage anyway. And as Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil has pointed out, the girls who are placed in Malacca’s “special school” will likely be stigmatised, creating other problems for them.

Instead of offering piecemeal solutions, what we really need is to get to the root of the problem of teenage pregnancies. Plus, it’s unfair to expect the government alone to be responsible for the problem.

Empowering, instead of preventing

What really is the root of the problem? Is it really that teenagers are having sex outside of marriage and should be stopped? Or that teenagers who find themselves in such situations don’t know how to protect themselves because they haven’t been taught?

If anything, the “chastity” pledge demonstrates the Education Ministry’s attempt to impose a narrow moralistic view about sex on young people. Such attempts have failed in other countries, including in the US. And even if some of us believe that young people should not have sex before marriage, we should not withhold important information about safe sex and contraception from them. Doing so would amount to a gross disservice to our youth.

Indeed, we cannot compel anyone – youths or adults – to strictly adhere to moral codes, in their private lives, that have been set by others. And if we continue to tell youths they shouldn’t engage in premarital sex in the same way that they should say “no” to smoking or drugs, we are actually telling them that premarital sex is something that is as ruinous, and shameful to boot.

But will these prevention methods really work? From the rate of teenage pregnancies and baby dumping that has been reported of late, clearly a better strategy is needed.

(Pic by Morrhigan /

Our youth need accurate information on contraception and birth control so that they can protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections – including HIV/AIDS – and unwanted pregnancies, before or during marriage. Wouldn’t providing youths with information, instead of moralistic prohibitions, be more empowering in helping young people make responsible decisions about their bodies and relationships?

For example, many continue to subscribe to myths such as girls or women can’t get pregnant during their period or if the guy pulls out before he ejaculates. Such falsehoods can only be dispelled if parents or teachers create safe spaces for discussion for young people, instead of treating sex as something that is immoral and shameful.

As it is, without responsible adults to discuss these issues with, many young people turn to pornography out of curiosity. But many do not know how to view pornography critically and lack the skills and maturity to negotiate sexual relationships.

Hence, it is actually irresponsible for parents or teachers to avoid talking about sex and sexuality simply because they are “uncomfortable” with the subject. If parents and teachers don’t provide a place where young people can go to, where do we expect our youths to find out about responsible relationships?

Conflicting messages

Young people are often confused by the conflicting messages about sex and sexuality from the media or society. For example, the teenage characters in Gossip Girl have sex. We tell them “that’s the West” and premarital sex is not compatible with “Asian values”. But stories of couples having sex before marriage are shown in Korean, Japanese and Hong Kong dramas, too.

Young people hear politicians declare that scantily dressed women arouse men’s sexual desire and cause men to sexually harass or rape women. Yet the government continues to allow the advertising industry to objectify women’s bodies in ads.

Young people in Malaysia see gay couples in healthy, loving relationships in The L Word and Brothers and Sisters, yet sodomy is a crime, and pengkid are outlawed, and the media either ignore or demonise people of different sexualities.

A 2008 fatwa ruled that tomboys, or pengkid, were forbidden in Islam

How are young people supposed to make sense of all these conflicting messages without guidance from their parents, teachers or other adults?


One of the reasons many parents and teachers feel “embarrassed” talking about such subjects is because even they themselves may not know much about sex and sexuality. But isn’t it high time our parents and teachers, especially those teaching subjects related to sex, buck up and adopt a more open attitude towards sex and sexuality so that they can be responsible adults?

“In countries like the Netherlands, where many families regard it as an important responsibility to talk openly with children about sex and sexuality, this contributes to greater cultural openness about sex and sexuality and improved sexual health among young people,” according to HIV/AIDS charity Avert.

The organisation also says there is evidence that positive parent-child communication about sexual matters can lead to greater condom use among young men and a lower rate of teenage conception among young women. Avert further suggests that parents can view sex education as an ongoing conversation about values, attitudes and issues with their children.

Embarrassment or discomfort to talk about sex and sexuality is a lame excuse, especially if that may cause your child or student to get infected, or become a teenage parent.

Let’s talk about sex, please

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 July 2010 © The Nut Graph

(Chalkboard image by ilco /

(Chalkboard image by ilco /

TO its credit, the government is trying to introduce sex education in schools. From mid-2009 till end of 2011, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Education Ministry are implementing a pilot project targeting 16- and 17-year-olds in five schools.

“The ministry hopes to use the outcome from the project to advocate for the inclusion of social and reproductive health education in primary and secondary schools,” Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil tells The Nut Graph. Indeed, with increased reports of baby dumping and teenage pregnancies, having sex education is clearly an imperative.

The pilot project is called I’m In Control, and Shahrizat explains that the module educates teenagers on how to identify and avoid high-risk situations, including assertive techniques to avoid premarital sex.

If the government is eventually successful in implementing sex education in schools, how should a comprehensive sex education look like? Additionally, what obstacles stand in the way of sex education?

Sexual beings

P.S. The Children‘s training and education director Nooreen Preusser says that everyone, regardless of their age, is a sexual being. “Even babies are curious about their bodies and play with their genitals; it’s a healthy curiosity,” she says in a phone interview with The Nut Graph.

Hence, she argues, sex and sexuality education should begin from pre-school, in an age-appropriate way.

Preusser (Courtesy of Nooreen Preusser)

“We could start by teaching children the correct names of their private body parts as we teach them the names of their other body parts,” she says, adding that that this signals there is no shame or mystery associated with private body parts.

Preusser says that in Germany, eight- and nine-year-olds are taught the basic facts about heterosexual sex and conception.

“The children are not shocked as it is done in an appropriate and matter-of-fact way,” she says, stressing that children also need to be taught to differentiate between a safe and unsafe touch.

Preusser adds that in countries like Finland and Netherlands, where sex education starts at pre-school, the rates of unplanned teenage pregnancies and teenagers infected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are much lower.

Access to information

Malaysian youths are also not helped by their alarmingly low awareness about contraception, according to a survey released in 2009. Additionally, contraception is not offered by the public health sector to unmarried people, Low Wah Yun from Universiti Malaya‘s Faculty of Medicine points out in a 2009 research paper.

Youths only have access to contraceptive services by private and non-governmental organisations. However, low awareness on the availability of such services and social stigma prevent most youth from accessing these services.

(Pic by zts / Dreamstime)

“Teenagers have the right to accurate sexual and reproductive health information so that they can make responsible and informed sexual choices,” says Wong Li Leng from the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM).

She says her association promotes abstinence, but “we have to accept the reality that some teenagers are engaging in premarital sex, and they need to have information to protect themselves and their partners from HIV/AIDS, STIs, unplanned pregnancies, etc.”

Teaching equality

Activist and writer Marina Mahathir says gender is a key component that should be included in sex education.

“We have to educate teenagers about negative gender stereotypes; for example, how boys are expected to be macho all the time and girls are expected to be submissive in relationships under social norms,” the 3R executive producer says. The TV programme 3R tackles issues on sexuality and women’s rights.

Wong agrees with Marina: “[W]ithout knowing the assumptions made to boys and girls, and recognising how gender stereotyping affects their choices and relationships in their lives, teenagers will not be able to apply the skills [in negotiating sexual relationships] in their daily lives.”

Wong adds that in FRHAM’s module, they also educate adolescents on their rights and values, and what to do when their rights are violated. “[F]or example, if they are sexually harassed or abused, we educate them on why it happens, what to do, and where to go.”

Wong (Pic courtesy of Cheah Shu Yi)

“We [also] explore issues on peer pressure, and the techniques of saying ‘no’,” Wong tells The Nut Graph.

Marina adds that topics such as dating, commitment in a relationship, as well as the existence of different sexualities should also be discussed in sex education.

In Singapore, sex education starts from upper primary till pre-university level. However, homosexuality is only covered in one lesson in lower secondary school, and students are taught that homosexual acts are illegal. People with other sexualities such as transgender, asexual and intersex are not mentioned in the curriculum at all.

“We can’t pretend that people with different sexualities don’t exist. It only serves to elevate discrimination against them. We need to create more safe spaces for people to talk about these issues,” says Marina.

Wong says FRHAM does provide information on other sexualities in their module.

Political will

If Malaysian youth are to be empowered to make informed and responsible choices on their sexual and reproductive health behaviour, then having comprehensive sex education would help. However, the government’s attempt to introduce sex education, also known as social and reproductive health education or sexuality education, in schools is not new.

In 2005, the Education Ministry announced it planned to introduce sex education to curb sexual crimes, internet pornography, and premarital sex. The government also considered including sex education in the National Service programme in 2008. There have not been any updates on either initiative.

Shahrizat (File pic)

Shahrizat says many parents worry because they misconceive sex education as teaching young people how to have sex, while teachers say they are not prepared to take on the subject.

“[P]arents worry [this] will lead to early sexual experimentation and promiscuity.

“However, findings of studies carried out by countries that have implemented sex education such as Sweden, Norway and Netherlands have shown that sex education for young people leads to a delay in sexual initiation, promotes abstinence, and prevents STIs and unwanted pregnancies,” Shahrizat says.