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The Star - Musings - It’s easy to do the right thing (28 Oct 2018)
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THIS is the era of the new. As much as some people hate the idea of anything new, this was what the rakyat voted for last May.

Even if it means we have a PM and some Cabinet ministers that aren’t so new.So let’s see what makes for a new Malaysia.

Firstly, the use of power to do the right thing. Lowering the voting age to 18 counts as one. I don’t know how many times foreigners have been shocked when I tell them that our young people can only vote at 21. We’re one of the last few holdouts in the world; everyone else has recognised that young people must have a say in who decides on their lives. It’s true though that they are more likely to vote against you because you’re the establishment but that can only be mitigated by having policies that benefit them. Again not hard to do.

Second, raising the marriage age for everyone, regardless of religion, to 18. How difficult was that to do? All that shuffling and mumbling and wishy-washiness for no good reason. Eighteen is the minimum age that anyone should be entrusted with making such a life-changing event as marriage. Even then let’s hope that not many opt for it. After all there’s still school and a future career ahead, none of which are helped by the responsibilities of marriage. If we truly care about our children, let us please be strict about this and not allow anyone to slip under the fence, no matter what the reason.

Which leads us to the other “new” thing we should have, that we have still been humming and hawing about for decades: comprehensive sex education for our young people. If we truly want to solve the issue of teenage pregnancies – 79,302 of which occurred between 2012 and 2016 – which is one of the main causes of both child marriage and abandoned babies, then we need to educate our young about their bodies, about sexuality, about having respectful relationships. We also need to open our eyes and realise that a lot of teen pregnancies are the result not of consensual relationships but of violence. Why else would a teenage girl hide her pregnancy and delivery resulting in the death of both her and her baby if not for shame? Call it what you will but our children need this education so that they can make informed choices and we should expect the new Malaysia to deliver.

The third indicator of the new Malaysia is the signing and ratifying of all remaining United Nations conventions and the abolishment of the death penalty. This is quite a remarkable change from the old Malaysia. The death penalty is not only cruel and prone to irreversible mistakes, it is also ineffective. Despite the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, our country is still awash with drugs and is still a major transit point for traffickers. The money is too big to not take the risk. Besides what is a few hundred dollars here and there to get past official barriers when you can make millions when your drugs reach their markets?

Getting rid of the death penalty is the right thing to do. So many convicted prisoners have been on death row waiting endlessly for their last day. It is hugely cruel. It is also hypocritical. We cannot oppose the killings of people overseas while still killing people at home.

This means that it is only right that we should refuse to hand over refugees who are facing persecution at home, unlike in the old days when we actually put them on planes back to their countries where they faced jail time and possibly even death.

However, it is archaic thinking to have not wanted to say anything about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi because we want to remain friendly with his government. In the old days, there were also dead people in our own country who were explained away with spurious excuses. Why then do we accept explanations that seem to change every day for this gruesome killing? Are we emulating Donald Trump who is willing to accept any excuse as long as it doesn’t affect arms sales? Let us not forget that those arms are for the ongoing and fruitless war in Yemen which is causing a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions.

It is new thinking to be bold enough to make a stand on this heinous murder and I’m glad we finally did. Thus far, only our neighbouring country and us are calling for justice for Khashoggi. Nobody has the divine right to kill anyone, regardless of who they are.

In the old Malaysia, most positions of power were held by men. Women were excluded from even the most benign of bodies, forum panels were filled with men expounding about everything that affects all of our society, ignoring women’s contributions. When the token women were allowed to speak, they toed the line, deferring always to the men.

The new Malaysia promised a bigger role for women. Some of it has come through, with a DPM and four other female ministers, more than we’ve ever had but short of the promised 30%. We also have a female Governor of Bank Negara and several female heads of GLCs. Two women judges were just elevated to the Federal Court.

But on important panels such as the recent Consultative Council on Foreign Policy, out of 15 members, there are only two women. What, women have nothing to say about foreign policy? Or on the economy or education? It is a fallacy to think that women are only interested in “women’s issues”. Every issue is a woman’s issue, including the heavy-hitting “real” issues.

For example, the issue of women in the labour force should be one for everyone’s concern. Only 54% of women of working age are employed and even then in low-paying and insecure jobs. Women are still paid less than men for equivalent work. Despite there being more female graduates than men, female degree holders are paid 23.3% less than men. Yet the Khazanah Research Institute, in its State of Households 2018 report, hypothesised that if we only raised the number of working women by 30%, we would actually raise Malaysia’s GDP by 7% to 12%.

Those are not small numbers and would make a huge difference not just to women but their families and communities, too. Everybody wins if women are employed in decently-paying jobs. But if we discriminate against women, both subtlely or overtly, then everybody loses. Is this something that men are aware of?

Sadly, not everyone has bought into the idea of diversity and inclusion when everywhere else, these two factors are recognised as being crucial to development. When societies recognise that not everyone is the same and that one-size-fits-all policies will actually harm some people, then we will make some progress. Imagine if we never recognised that some people cannot see or cannot walk, how would we have braille numbers in lifts or ramps for wheelchairs? But those are not the only diversities we have to think of. Besides abilities, there’s gender, age, income levels. How would we make parks better, for example, if we didn’t have input from all the different types of people who would use them?

Finally, there is one type of old thinking that we really need to put to rest and that is the sense of entitlement that some people get when they are given a position. We rail at the previous abuses but we then act in a way that’s oblivious to how the public might perceive it. This in a new era where the public is watching everything. Rules for transparency and accountability have been set and we need to stick to them for credibility’s sake.

We have a choice now, to go the same old way or try new things. The old way led us to the brink of disaster so we have to think differently and set some standards for ourselves. The values which underscore everything we do remain the same – don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. Along the way we lost sight of these so we have to recover and regain them. Returning to these old values will be the new way of doing things..

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