The lazy poor

JANUARY 9 — Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad asked presumably average Malaysians not to envy the rich.

It’s included in his first Wawasan year speech to civil servants, three days ago.

If there’s a class of people needing a defence at the start of the year, most won’t suspect it’d be multimillionaires and billionaires.

They’ve got battalions of expensive lawyers to fill the void; some of them already at the previous PM’s trials.

The new PM has more pressing engagements, surely. And if the lawyers fail, there’s PR consultants, from near and far, with analytics and behavioural study doctorates.

Anyhow, it’s not like the PM’s related to a slew of billionaires. Definitely not.

I’d let it pass if it did not come with the advisory the poor should increase their productivity to overcome their poverty, and recognise how in this market economy the rich are the single biggest contributors to government funds used to develop and administer the country. The inference being the poor live off the rich.

Let’s start with envy.

I was six and my sister’s antic landed me headlong on a wooden armrest. I’m sure my late mum was envious of the rich when she had to walk me to the government clinic two kilometres away. Blood dripping from above my left eye; and the scar remains till today.

That if we’re richer we’d have a car, and an insurance card for the nearest private clinic with a receptionist dishing out a lollypop while I check out the colouring books in the play-area after being stitched by an apologetic doctor.

But being diametrically opposite of rich, it was the government clinic for us and my red-faced mum with her red IC seeking help with the little Malay she had.

The blood must have clarified the proposition to the counter staff. The medical assistant’s stitchwork was not brilliant.

I mean what a mean thing to say. That, the poor should cease to envy.

Of course, the poor envy the rich. The lure to the free market economy is a result of our envy. The profits and wealth lead the path away from less and to the promise of more as dictated by money.

Envy is the central drive to get more hooked to the laissez-faire system.

However, here’s the difference. The poor — especially in a class-ridden Asian society, a reality often masked as feudalism — rarely begrudge the rich.  

The PM does not need to explain what social classes are, life teaches us daily.

If the envy turned into anger, there’d be blood on the streets. Which is always a great reason for the rich to wish the poor some wealth too.

The largest contributors

For most of humanity’s time, taxes end up with rulers. Alms were voluntary support from the able to the week. Religions codified them, to present them as superior acts of compassion.

The rise of the modern state brought a philosophical but more importantly, an egalitarian sense to taxes. Primarily the redistribution of taxes to needed areas and persons. It’s not pity, it’s about building a country.

Progressive taxation is not cruel, it just underlines the fact those who earn far beyond the average salary can afford a higher percentage drawn from them.

The minimum wage in 57 localities as mandated by law is RM1,200, and pinching RM100 from that shows on the faces of the earners. “From my little, you take so much,” the faces tell.

Taking RM1,000, for instance from those earning RM12,000 would not upset as much. It’s not fun to be taxed but rarely torture when appropriate.

So yes, the uber rich, are taxed most. But the loss of utility is hardly telling. After a certain amount, it’s just numbers in an encrypted banking account for the super-rich.

There are lengthy dialectical discussions to preface progressive taxation, which can be accessed, but in respect to brevity, here’s the summary, the rich can get stuffed.

Also, wealth’s built by those willing to tunnel vision, meaning they ignore many other considerations and produce collateral damage, like those coal company owners in Australia and the fire tormenting the continent presently.

Short version, they usually screw a whole bunch of us while earning their moolah. Taxing them more does not turn the tax department employees into Cruella de Vil’s minions.

Mostly, I don’t expect to be serenaded by a mega banquet hosted by a gambling tycoon when I turn 90 — but all of this is hypothetical since my healthcare coverage guarantees my exit long before.

‘Work sets you free’

Outside the Cheras Jalan Kuari McDonalds, by the drive-through pick-up the riders from the franchise and from Grab sit on the floor drinking their soda, waiting for trips to come in. The cemetery borders the store and an expensive funeral parlour lurks above it.

All the death, life, happy meals and soda diets intertwine for me, and perhaps they do for the riders too.

Reminds me of another age.

The irony of the sign above the entrance to the Auschwitz death/concentration camp “Arbeit macht frei (Work Sets You Free)” stings anew when set beside Malaysia’s ruling class demand for the rest to work our way from gloom.

We’re working. Some with two jobs. I wonder if that previous deputy minister — whose name shall not be mentioned — still has many jobs?

Mahathir said once, before his second coming, it’s better to give a million ringgit to a capable entrepreneur rather than to a trishaw puller. I’m not entirely sold on that. Depends on what they want to do with the money, rather than who’s asking for the money — as business plans go.

Microcredit works, apparently.

But more to the point, is the following.

It does not matter if you’re a trishaw puller or bona fide millionaire, if the government decides to hand down, for instance, the monopoly on bandage procurements for its hospitals to any lender, success is guaranteed.

Sometimes, the government can even make trishaw pullers great medicine men, without the caravan.

The emergency room

The hospital jibe has a connection.

I spent most of yesterday in healthcare facilities, with the longest bit at the very ward where my mum was pronounced dead six years ago. Waiting with the masses for health for our loved ones, so they too can be productive members of society, Mr Prime Minister.

As a former medical officer, they are far more familiar to you.

Don’t turn poverty on the victims. It’s not the preferred destination for any of us.

A private-health insurance card holder probably gets treated in an hour at a private hospital, while these people wait a day or two for the same.

A millionaire is greeted by the general manager at the entrance with flowers. With Netflix on a giant screen in his suite.

This is not to deride Malaysia’s public healthcare, which does a swell job far ahead of many countries. But this is to remind the prime minister, it’s not a fair game.

Not everyone can be as rich, but government can work towards bridging dignity for all. Many try, and those who don’t can be asked to try. But all Malaysians should try, rich and poor to build a space of dignity for all of us.

Data collaborates, from every nook and cranny of the world, that social class and background has a huge say about who’s successful. PM’s kids tend to do better than PM’s drivers’ kids.

But that’s not a get-out-of-work card for the poor. They’ve got to slog it and give it a proper go. They love their kids, as do rich parents.

While we all do that, love our offspring and try from our various stations in life, the prime minister can skip the need to pronounce the profound value of the rich.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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