AUGUST 1 — “Class for Marx, rather like virtue for Aristotle, is not a matter of how you are feeling but what you are doing.” — Terry Eagleton
I didn’t expect the debate to be so fiery.
A student was presenting a run-of-the-mill assignment arguing that capitalism was really the only option we have, so it’s best we learn to live and adapt to it.
His remarks sparked a passionate response from many in the classroom about how a) capitalism has generally failed the majority of mankind and b) if we don’t start thinking about alternatives, the poor may end up literally eating the rich.
The session went on and on; whatever the case, I can’t deny I was moved to reflect on Malaysia as whole, not least the severity of our economic stratifications.
If there was one thing the pandemic exposed in a flagrant way, it’s the immense divide in wealth within the country. Also known as the class divide, one doesn’t need to read KS Jomo to realise there can often be deep socio-economic inequalities within Malaysian society (produced, in part, by this behemoth called “capitalism” in all its glory and calamity).
We’re not just referring to how some rubber glove-making conglomerates earned billions while many families had to fly white flags.
These disparities often co-exist within the same family (among siblings, for example), the same office (one or two individuals on the highest floor sometimes earn more than half the people on a lower one) and sometimes even within the same WhatsApp groups.
Because, let’s be honest, some Malaysians have everything and others practically nothing.
On one hand, Menu Rahmah offerings continue to sell out showing just how many of us feel we often can’t afford to pay more than RM5 for lunch or dinner.
But at the same time, the boba tea joints (where a cup of milk tea, ice and “pearls” can cost three times what a Menu Rahmah meal does) and hotpot restaurants (where you pay more than RM50 to eat a few slices of meat because you’re doing so in a nice posh environment) and IMAX cinemas (where the cost of watching a 60-year-old guy base-jump off a cliff can be RM40 or more — don’t even get me started on those “Lux Suites” experiences) are selling like hot cakes.
And are you also getting at least two calls a week from NGOs begging for funds to sustain some old folks’ home or an orphanage running out of money? I am.
Yet not a day goes by I see something on Twitter about someone wishing hoping praying they get to see Taylor Swift in Singapore next year.
In case you haven’t googled the cost, it’s between S$288 to S$388 a pop; to use the title of one of Swift’s songs, that’s Style that more than 70 or 80 per cent of Malaysians can’t afford no matter how much they love Tay Tay.
More seriously, more than 6.6 million Malaysians have less than RM10,000 left in their EPF savings. Yet there’s more than a handful of people who are actually about to pay almost RM200,000 for the Tesla Model Y.
It’s supremely ironic that some of the people who wish to add a crazy-priced EV to their garage (very likely the third or fourth car in there) will also be going around complaining about inflation, poor economic growth, the weak ringgit and so on as if they are experiencing anything like economic woes.
Even worse if a majority of these folks helm more than 67 per cent of Malaysian companies who aren’t too keen on paying a minimum wage — which suggests (surprise surprise) that the class divide is actively sustained by those who benefit from it.
Hence, the popular support (even among many Malaysians) for leaders like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who championed socialist-like policies. How ironic therefore that Malaysian parties like Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) don’t get anything like half that backing.
This would be the worst outcome of our decades-long obsession with race-religion on politics: when people with the lowest purchasing power in the country still think about those factors when they vote instead of something more practical.
Narrowing the divide?
The above issues cannot be solved with a RM100 eWallet gift from the government (see note 1). It remains debatable if they can even be resolved at all.
Sure, socialism is one approach but we’ve all seen what happened to the Communist bloc and — let’s be honest — nobody is dying to migrate to Cuba anytime soon, are they? (This is where I, for one, lean away from my anti-capitalist students.)
Because one huge problem with systemic approaches akin to socialism is that nobody wants to have their “hard-earned money” taken away by government fiat and distributed to classes of generally unknown strangers. People don’t mind sharing, of course, but nobody wants to be forced to do so. Even worse if such “affirmative action” appears neverending.
Having said that, are there things we can do communally sans coercion or obligation? These local (as opposed to “global” or “national”) initiatives usually garner more support and enthusiasm. Simply imagine feeding a hungry child next door versus sending RM100 to Ethiopia famine relief.
Thus, simple acts of voluntarily sharing food and resources within a reasonable radius can go much farther than we think, especially if thousands of families and/or communities are mobilised.
In this context, civil society plays a critical role. Gurdwaras, churches, NGOs, Leo or Rotaract clubs, etc. can all help to bridge these disparities by reaching out to people a stone’s throw away.
These and other activities (like Assunta Hospital’s recent mobile clinic initiative) may not necessarily “narrow the divide” but they can surely help.
At the very least, they would channel local conversations towards better directions than a) simply complaining about lack of money or b) comparing how much we have or don’t have.
Who knows, as per Eagleton’s quote above, when we begin doing things differently we will change, too?
* Note 1: I’m surely not the only one who suspects that instead of giving this amount to everyone earning less than RM100,000 a year it’d be better if, say, RM200 be given to people earning less than RM40,00 to RM50,000 annually. They surely need it more.
** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.