Philosophy, cars and wages

FEB 6 — Welcome to the cheapest workshop in Kuala Lumpur, so claimed its owner.

Down from king of the street’s strategically placed stretch chair, three taxi drivers took turns telling stories while we waited for our vehicles in the shade. The mostly Punjabi workers listened intermittently to the chatter as they minded and bent a gasket or two, but still managing to mutter their disapproval at the number of jobs piling up. It was interesting to listen to one about the BR1M “money” and how quickly it goes with all the repairs to please SPAD.

(BR1M is a relatively new annual cash hand-out programme for low wage earning families in Malaysia. The electoral effect of the cash has rendered it highly contentious. SPAD are the latest superagency to oversee land transport, therefore adding more authorities drivers have to mind.)

There were anecdotal tales of friends and family not getting paid due to political affiliations and others getting paid to produce identity cards presumably for third parties to extract payments. They went through the extensive list of patronages for the poor. What they did agree on was that despite the hand-outs it was getting expensive very quickly in Malaysia, like buying often spare parts for suspect national cars. Luckily the men in the yard came from both sides of Punjab — India and Pakistan — but were in rare consensus to beat the car to submission rather than buy parts. 

They were also eager to agree that Malaysian living was no dance number. They were grateful for the cardboard sheets to lie on while knocking the undercarriage of the standard Proton Saga day after day, but the fixed pay system deployed was self-limiting and therefore disagreeable.

The workshop served mostly city taxis and the drivers argued over the rate set by the workshop owner before paying anyhow — and still thereafter slipping an extra fiver to the uncertified mechanic from the sub-continent. The tips made a huge difference my best newfound wait-mate said.

Apparently having a sea of workshop employees adjacent to his on-street and street-side operation did not weigh heavily on the boss man because the one managing the grounds behind him was his son and the other workshop belonged to a relative. It helped too that the spare parts shop belonged to his other son. I wasn’t able to tell which son was older.

The rush of thumping hammers and revving automobiles fills up the space, all of it, you almost forget on display is the number one problem afflicting Malaysia today, distribution of wealth.

Wealthy Malaysia, poor Malaysians

At the heart of what plagues Malaysia is that a large population of Malaysians are receiving a sliver of the economic wealth the country continues to experience. This is a blessed country in all sense of the word when it comes to resource, but few truly enjoy it.

However, whether due to historical anomalies like systemic wage depression and personality rather than process driven business growths, or disappointing graduates from all levels of our educational system or any of the 10 other reasons critics tend to raise, a high wealth disparity has become an institutionalised reality.

Businesses here squeeze labour first and entertain “hidden costs” like appeasing enforcement officers to look the other way for instance when they utilise city streets as free workspace.

Government knows this, the income gap, and has sustained albeit after reforming subsidies and initiated new measures like discount stores to bridge the chasm.  But a band aid approach will always come short as the process is only good as the delivery mechanism plus other externalities holding steady.

This government and the next will struggle with navigating the country to greater pay parity among its citizens. While a forced wage increase, far more than what our low minimum wage brought to the table, may be the most formidable tool even, a real philosophical shift is necessary to provide brute force of reason to the debate.

Without a real principle approach to the problem, the complexities of distribution at the practical and lower levels will cripple the present and future initiatives. Many will rely on technicalities to offset or delay implementations, perhaps indefinitely.

The owner and worker

What is stopping the workshop owner from paying his staff the right amount for honest labour, other than his natural inclination for greater profits?

Firstly, there are no regulations for workshop operations, shops don’t display the certifications the mechanics have, or whether they can be called mechanics. My fear is if there was an effort to do so, the process would be over-elaborate centred around strict rules no operator can ever match and therefore opening up channels for business owners to incentivise the new set of enforcement officers in order to continue.

The solution becomes an extra bane.

Regulations should assist trades to flourish and protect the interests of those involved in them by apportioning fair responsibilities and remunerations.

For instance, zoning areas would require the consultation and proper factoring of practical considerations before drawing lines. They should be not operating from the street, but when they transfer to legal business premises would they benefit from the government apparatus such as promotion, access, services?

The small and medium business owner often feels he is fending off a gnawing state rather than thriving under its constant care.

So there is sense in the owner wanting that extra buffer beyond a just margin to stay pretty at all times.

Still there is the worker, the person behind the work product.

Will the state back businesses by stating it will push for better pay and better workers at the same time, or will they just expect owners to find better value from the workers after paying premium prices for them?

This is when the hire local or foreign discourse heats up. Are Malaysians valuable enough to justify better pay?

Government has to manage both business owners and workers’ expectations simultaneously without complicating the matter with their own political theatre.

When the lights come on

Which is why today was decidedly strange. My day trip to the workshop was later accompanied by my after-futsal drinks with the lads. Three French lads were in deep thoughtful conversation — I’m telling this just from their mannerism. David, one of them, told me that they were trying to grapple with the increasing wealth disparities worldwide.  They felt the poor were getting poorer.

The globe was afflicted by a similar malaise apparently, though I doubt many nations have our size of the same problem.

Our situation is unique: Our poor are not asking alms on the streets, but when our richest are now terrified because they are running out of personal objects to purchase and oil prices remain high, why is every new wealth story crowded by bad news springing from economic hardships?

While the planet is obsessed with giving Malaysia the means to create a middle-class utopia, the policy makers, civil servants and community leaders are interacting or perhaps just rubbing each other the wrong way to a disproportionate economy.

The discussing lads all worked in oil and gas but they spoke about the need for economic equality. Two from families originating from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and Algeria respectively, and the third Caucasian, but they were in agreement on the terms of deciding what was right to bring better wealth distribution even if they differed on the steps.

It appears the philosophy of their society provides them a certain nature to talk about poverty and the rights of man. There are enough crooks and unscrupulous businessmen in France, that goes without saying for all countries. But their discourse is shaped by a moral philosophy, of values.

That is what will break the stalemate in Malaysia, in reaching for working models, methods, programmes, evaluation processes and review mechanisms. Those in it and overseeing it converse with the objective at an ideas level.

That is how the workers at the cheapest workshop in Kuala Lumpur are going to be liberated economically. Some principled thinking and execution along with the right soundtrack.


* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.  

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