By: Foong Li Mei
Her crisp and confident voice swept through the packed hall with grace and conviction. It was nothing like the ferocity fired from the top of the lungs that one has come to expect whenever a political figure is handed a microphone.
She emphasised that politicians should not be given full control of the country’s finances. She spoke of the need for an independent authority to release a pre-Budget report that serves as a reference point for the actual Budget, much like the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) in the UK. She urged Malaysians to remain vigilant over government spending, and insist on having a say in how tax monies are spent. She stressed on the importance of bridging income inequality, as poverty enslaves people’s minds, preventing them from understanding the policies that are made and the politics that are played at their expense.
The crowd did not get riled up. They were listening – which, as crowds go, was a pretty rare sight.
I had to remind myself, time and again, that Nurul Izzah Anwar is a politician. I have never heard or met the Lembah Pantai Member of Parliament in person before, but given my skepticism about political leaders, I expected her speech to be yet another “We are saviours, they are evil” chinwag.
I was wrong. As a panelist on REFSA’s recent forum Creating an Economic Tide that Lifts All Boats, Nurul Izzah stirred style into substance, but the real spark of her speech was the sincerity she exudes. The vice president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) dangled the many weaknesses of the BN administration for all to see, yet steered clear of dipping into acidic, scathing remarks. Her illustration of policies that have worked in developed countries showed that her vision for Malaysia is built upon realistic optimism rather than baseless idealism. She did not hijack minds with personal attacks and distasteful, snide remarks about her political opponents, but captivated hearts instead with charismatic intelligence and self-deprecating humour.
Several young women were as surprised as I was at Nurul Izzah’s eloquence, and enquired if she was a lawyer by training. In truth, this up-and-coming leader holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering from Universiti Tenaga Nasional before earning her Master’s Degree in International Relations from John Hopkins University, USA.
Being a public figure calls for a very basic and necessary skill and that is the art of public speaking. The fact that many of the attendees, including yours truly, were dazzled by the quality of Nurul Izzah’s rhetoric only hammered home one sad truth – Malaysians are used to, and have come to expect, the more disgraceful variant of political speeches.
Joining Nurul Izzah as forum panelist was Liew Chin Tong, Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera and international secretary for DAP (Disclosure: Chin Tong is also a trustee of REFSA). He, too, spoke with clarity and conviction as he offered alternative solutions to Malaysia’s current economic woes.
Liew spoke on restoring the country’s economy by reducing the reliance on cheap foreign labour. The strength of his speech lies in the examples that ordinary Malaysians can relate to. “Why can’t garbage collectors be paid RM2000 per month?” he asked. He went on to explain that if Malaysia’s garbage trucks could be upgraded to make the process automated, we would only need to pay for one garbage man to operate the truck, instead of an army of workers trailing along to pick up the trash bags. With manpower slashed, the sole garbage collector can be paid more, thus making garbage collecting a more attractive job, especially for the locals.
With that real-life example based, Liew successfully illustrated that most of the time, businesses do not need as many labourers as they claim they do. They could reduce manpower by investing in productivity improvements, but there is currently little incentive for businesses to do so, especially when hiring a whole troop of foreign labour is much cheaper. Liew also pointed out that to maximise profit, some businesses even prefer to employ migrant workers rather than the more expensive locals. This ultimately contributes to the rising unemployment rate in our country and low-incomes and bad work conditions.
Liew agreed with a member of the audience that one way to reduce reliance on foreign labour is to pay them wages comparable to that given to locals. If there is no longer an option of cheap labour, businesses would be forced to upgrade their productivity methods, and Malaysian workers would not be faced with unfair competition.
The forum also offered attendees a rare chance to meet a PAS leader, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, who was the third panelist of the day. The Member of Parliament for Kuala Selangor and executive director of PAS’ research institute clarified that the party is no longer Islamist, but Islamist Democrats (the full story has been duly highlighted in REFSA Rojak Special Feature recently).
I thought Dr Dzulkefly’s speech revolved too much around PAS’ ideologies and would have preferred him to address specific economic issues and give solid solutions. However, the Kuala Selangor MP must have impressed the multiethnic audience of various ages as the Negara Berkebajikan (Benevolent State) document which outlines PAS’ policies, sold like hot cakes. His own book, Striving for Change also recorded a good number of sales.
All in all, the three panelists were a breath of fresh air to me, very unlike those who engage in dirty political games that get splashed across our news pages every day. These three represent a new breed of enlightened political leaders who are ready to lead thinking Malaysians, not angry mobs.
Will Nurul Izzah, Liew and Dr Dzulkefly keep up their resolve to establish a transparent government and acknowledge citizen empowerment should the Pakatan Rakyat coalition seize Putrajaya? Only time will tell if they are immune or susceptible to power’s tendency to corrupt.
However, in the present, watching the three of them speak inspired confidence – I can imagine them taking our country out of the rut it is in. That is more than can be said about what most politicians are doing these days.
I write this not merely to give credit to these three leaders, but more importantly, to remind those politicians constantly embroiled in wars of words that their conduct is not so different from a display of fireworks – amusing, but short-lived. Malaysians are long tired of explosions, and are finding relief instead in the voices of reason and professionalism.
Nurul Izzah, Liew and Dr Dzulkefly not only struck a chord with the audience at REFSA’s forum, but also left this resounding tune in the hearts of the rakyat – Malaysia is our home; let’s do our best for her.
Why ‘Rojak’? Disparate flavours and textures come together in a harmonious mix to make this delicious but underrated concoction. Our Rojak weekly is much like this mix, making sense of the noise of daily newsflow and politicking.
It is also our ultimate dream that our multi-ethnic melange of communities can be made richer within the unique ‘sauce’ that is Malaysia. Let’s take pride in the ‘rojakness’ of our nation!