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Generasi Berhutang, Bahagian 2

Dalam Bahagian 1 siri penyelidikan ini, kami telah membincangkan perihal kebingungan hutang pendidikan di Malaysia. Hutang pendidikan telah meningkat dengan ketara saban tahun. Sejak penubuhan PTPTN, institusi pinjaman pendidikan utama Malaysia pada tahun 1997, jumlah peminjam, dan jumlah yang diperlukan untuk membiayai pinjaman telah bertambah. Setiap tahun, kira-kira 200,000 orang menjadi peminjam baharu apabila mereka mengakses pendidikan tinggi melalui pinjaman pendidikan.

Masalah utama yang diketengahkan dalam Bahagian 1 adalah jangkaan peningkatan mobiliti sosial yang tidak direalisasikan. Premis asas pinjaman pendidikan adalah kemampuan peminjam untuk membayar balik pinjaman, berkat potensi pendapatan yang lebih tinggi hasil daripada pencapaian tahap kelayakan pendidikan tinggi. Walau bagaimanapun, pelbagai indikator menunjukkan bahawa ramai graduan tidak memperoleh pekerjaan yang setimpal selepas tamat pengajian mereka, sejak sebelum wabak COVID-19 melanda negara lagi.

Kajian Pengesanan Graduan (SKPG) 2018 menunjukkan bahawa hampir 60% graduan menganggur atau kekal menganggur setahun selepas tamat pengajian mereka. Survei PTPTN juga telah mendapati bahawa lebih dari satu pertiga responden berpendapatan di bawah RM2,000 sebulan. Lebih serius lagi, kombinasi isu potensi pendapatan yang lebih tinggi yang tidak dicapai dan beban hutang pendidikan telah memberi impak yang tidak proporsional kepada peminjam B40, apabila 97% daripada penghutang lalai yang disurvei oleh PTPTN berasal dari kumpulan ini.

Siapakah yang layak untuk penghapusan atau pengampunan hutang?

Fokus utama dasar pada awal 2000-an adalah kelalaian hutang yang disengajakan. Namun kebelakangan ini fokus ini telah beralih kepada kelalaian di luar kawalan peminjam disebabkan prospek pekerjaan yang tidak dipenuhi. Segmen peminjam yang paling terkesan oleh isu ini adalah mereka yang kurang mampu dan terbeban yang berdepan dengan masalah tiga serangkai iaitu: latar belakang sosioekonomi isi rumah yang kurang baik, beban hutang pendidikan dan prospek mobiliti pendapatan yang tergenang disebabkan ketidakbolehpasaran kelayakan.

Pengampunan atau penghapusan hutang pendidikan, sama ada sepenuhnya atau separa, merupakan cadangan dasar utama untuk membantu peminjam bagi melunaskan bayaran balik pinjaman pendidikan mereka. Di Amerika Syarikat, di mana jumlah pinjaman pendidikan yang tinggi merupakan antara masalah ekonomi dan politik yang terbesar,  penghapusan hutang pendidikan merupakan salah satu dasar teras yang dicadangkan oleh beberapa calon pilihan raya presiden 2020, termasuk Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, dan Presiden Joe Biden – perbezaan utama antara mereka terletak pada kriteria dan jumlah penghapusan yang dicadangkan.

Di Malaysia, gabungan pembangkang Pakatan Rakyat pernah mengadakan kempen penghapusan hutang pendidikan pada tahun 2012-2013 berikutan protes pelajar yang diketuai oleh Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM) dan Gerakan Menuntut Pendidikan Percuma (GMPP). Baru-baru ini, Lim Lip Eng, Ahli Parlimen Kepong, telah mencadangkan penghapusan hutang PTPTN bagi peminjam B40 untuk mengurangkan beban hutang keluarga mereka. Geoffrey Williams, seorang ahli ekonomi di Malaysia University of Science and Technology telah menyeru agar kerajaan mengenalpasti dan menghapuskan hutang lapuk PTPTN melalui penghapusan hutang.

Malaysia boleh dan telah melaksanakan penghapusan hutang pendidikan untuk mencapai pelbagai tujuan dasar. Untuk menginsentifkan kecemerlangan akademik, penghapusan pinjaman penuh telah ditawarkan sejak tahun 2003 bagi peminjam PTPTN yang memperoleh ijazah sarjana muda dengan kepujian kelas pertama. Sehingga 31 Disember 2018, 57,236 peminjam telah dikecualikan daripada membayar balik pinjaman pendidikan mereka di bawah skim ini1.

Untuk menginsentifkan bayaran pinjaman yang lebih segera, penghapusan pinjaman separa telah ditawarkan sejak tahun 2013 untuk peminjam PTPTN yang dapat menyelesaikan pinjaman mereka secara bayaran sekaligus atau yang telah membuat bayaran balik secara konsisten2. Dalam ucapan Bajet 2019, penghapusan separa juga telah ditawarkan kepada peminjam berpendapatan rendah berusia 60 tahun dan ke atas.3

Seperti yang dinyatakan dalam sebuah penyelidikan pada tahun 2016 oleh Penang Institute, ada antara dasar penghapusan pinjaman separa ini bersifat regresif. Pelajar yang lulus dengan kepujian kelas pertama biasanya akan lebih mudah dipanggil menghadiri temuduga kerja dan akan mendapat pekerjaan dengan gaji yang lebih baik berbanding rakan sebaya mereka. Peminjam dari keluarga berada dapat menyelesaikan pinjaman mereka melalui bayaran sekaligus berbanding mereka dari keluarga berpendapatan rendah.

Walau apa pun, jelaslah bahawa penghapusan hutang pendidikan bukanlah suatu langkah yang belum pernah dicuba di Malaysia apabila adanya kemahuan politik untuk melaksanakannya. Oleh itu, daripada menghapuskan hutang mereka yang mempunyai prospek yang lebih baik untuk membayar balik, kami mencadangkan penghapusan pinjaman pendidikan bersasar dan separa dilaksanakan untuk segmen peminjam yang dikenalpasti paling tidak mampu dan paling terbeban disebabkan faktor-faktor struktural.

Suatu langkah untuk mengkategorikan peminjam semasa perlu diusahakan untuk menentukan siapa yang tergolong dalam segmen ini. Beberapa faktor yang harus diambil kira termasuklah latar belakang sosioekonomi keluarga, gaji terdahulu dan terkini peminjam, dan kualiti kelayakan yang diterima (contohnya bidang pengajian, taraf kelayakan dan status institusi yang menganugerahkan kelayakan tersebut).

Penghapusan pinjaman separa untuk segmen peminjam ini haruslah diberikan pada kadar yang dampak atau signifikan ke atas baki pinjaman mereka, misalnya RM20,000 atau 50-80% daripada baki pinjaman. Di samping itu, bagi mereka yang berada dalam segmen peminjam yang dikenal pasti telah membayar pinjaman mereka selama lebih dari 15 tahun, baki hutang mereka patut dihapuskan sepenuhnya bagi membebaskan mereka daripada hutang pendidikan. Pada masa ini, tiada garis masa ditetapkan untuk peminjam ‘bebas dari hutang’ walau apa pun keadaan mereka.

Pengkritik mungkin akan bertanya mengapa tidak kita lanjutkan sahaja tempoh pinjaman? Pada pandangan kami, penghapusan hutang separa bersasar adalah pilihan dasar yang lebih kuat dari segi moral berbanding melanjutkan tempoh pinjaman untuk peminjam yang tiada kemampuan dan terbeban untuk membayar balik. Pelanjutan tempoh pinjaman akan menyebabkan peminjam membayar lebih banyak faedah dan diperangkap oleh beban hutang untuk jangka masa yang lebih lama.

Di peringkat negeri, kesedaran tentang pentingnya untuk beban pinjaman pendidikan diringankan telah dapat dilihat. Awal tahun ini, kerajaan negeri Sarawak melalui Yayasan Sarawak menandatangani Memorandum Persefahaman dengan PTPTN untuk membayar 30% pinjaman pendidikan peminjam Sarawak setelah peminjam membayar 30% daripada hutang mereka. Sehingga kini  9,000 peminjam dari negeri itu telah menerima manfaat ‘penghapusan’ 30% hutang mereka melalui dasar ini.

Pastinya ia boleh menjadi suatu dasar yang jauh lebih progresif  jika ambang batas minimum diketepikan dan jumlah penyelesaian hutang yang lebih besar ditawarkan kepada peminjam berpendapatan rendah yang berkelayakan. Namun demikian, di sebalik kekurangan ini, langkah ini patut dipantau supaya kita dapat melihat impaknya ke atas kebajikan peminjam serta kesan-kesannya yang lain. Penyelidikan di Amerika Syarikat menunjukkan bahawa penghapusan hutang pendidikan dapat meningkatkan kestabilan keluarga dan mobiliti ke atas, membolehkan peminjam memulakan perniagaan sendiri, menyimpan wang pendahuluan untuk membeli rumah, memulakan keluarga, membuat simpanan untuk masa kecemasan, melanjutkan pengajian dan membantu menjana ekonomi.

Selain itu, kerajaan harus mewujudkan mekanisme pengaduan untuk menyiasat aduan dan membatalkan hutang peminjam yang telah dikelirukan oleh institusi pendidikan tinggi (IPT) tertentu, atau apabila program pengajian mereka dihentikan atau tidak diakreditasi atau apabila IPT ditutup sebelum peminjam menamatkan pengajian mereka4.  Pada masa artikel ini ditulis (Julai 2021), nilai ijazah lebih daripada 500 pelajar dari Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT) telah menjadi tanda tanya selepas akreditasi sementara kursus mereka dibatalkan oleh Agensi Kelayakan Malaysia (MQA). Beberapa pelajar kursus tersebut telah membayar sehingga RM72,000 sebagai yuran pengajian. Perlindungan seperti yang kami cadangkan di sini terdapat di negara Australia, untuk membantu peminjam sekiranya IPT berhenti daripada menawarkan kursus mereka ataupun tutup sepenuhnya.

Penghapusan hutang separa sebagai pendorong khidmat awam? Pada masa artikel ini ditulis, kerajaan Kanada menawarkan untuk membatalkan $8,000 dari hutang pendidikan setiap tahun kepada doktor dan $4,000 setiap tahun kepada jururawat dan pengamal jururawat, dengan syarat mereka bekerja sekurang-kurangnya 400 jam di kawasan komuniti terpencil atau luar bandar. Manfaat ini boleh dituntut selama lima tahun, yang membawa kepada jumlah penghapusan hutang yang signifikan.

1 Kos penghapusan pinjaman ini pada mulanya ditanggung oleh PTPTN tetapi beralih kepada kerajaan sejak tahun 2015. Kumpulan peminjam ini mewakili 1.6% daripada 3.5 juta peminjam PTPTN pada tahun 2018 dan telah mendapat penghapusan sebanyak RM1.75 bilion. Sumber: Laporan Tahunan PTPTN 2018.
2 Insentif diskaun tersebut diperkenalkan dalam Bajet 2012 termasuk diskaun 20% untuk peminjam yang menyelesaikan hutang mereka dalam satu bayaran sekaligus dan diskaun 10% bagi mereka yang membayar secara konsisten selama satu tahun. Tawaran ini dihentikan/tamat pada Disember 2018.
 3 Kriteria kelayakan adalah pendapatan bulanan RM4,000 dan ke bawah. Skim ini dikatakan telah menguntungkan 350 peminjam dengan kos RM4.2 juta.
4 Dasar semasa untuk membantu pelajar yang terjejas adalah dengan mengatur pemindahan kredit ke IPT lain. Namun, pada pendapat kami, pelajar harus diberi pilihan antara berpindah ke IPT lain dan meneruskan pinjaman mereka, atau menghentikan pengajian dan membatalkan pinjaman mereka.

Siapa yang perlu membayar, bila dan berapa?

Selain daripada isu peminjam yang terbeban disebabkan faktor-faktor struktural, dua persoalan lain yang berkaitan dengan pinjaman pendidikan tertunggak perlu diselesaikan: bilakah masa yang sesuai untuk peminjam mula membayar balik hutang mereka (ambang), dan berapa banyak yang harus mereka bayar (penahapan)?

Dasar sedia ada PTPTN hari ini adalah skim bayaran balik berasaskan masa, di mana semua peminjam dijangka mula membayar ansuran pinjaman 12 bulan setelah tamat pengajian tanpa mengira tahap pendapatan mereka5. Skim ini tidak mengambil kira perbezaan tahap kemampuan peminjam untuk membayar balik, dan ia menghukum mereka yang tidak dapat membayar balik dan membebankan mereka yang boleh membayar balik.

Cadangan dasar utama untuk mengatasi masalah ini adalah idea bayaran balik berasaskan pendapatan di mana peminjam hanya mula membayar balik pinjaman pendidikan mereka setelah mencapai tahap pendapatan yang bersesuaian dan di mana kadar bayaran balik akan meningkat mengikut kenaikan pendapatan peminjam. Dasar ini pada mulanya dilaksanakan di Australia. Menurut Bruce Chapman, profesor di Crawford School of Public Policy di Australian National University6, sistem bayaran balik berasaskan pendapatan ini telah menjadi inspirasi kepada dasar-dasar yang serupa di New Zealand, Afrika Selatan, England, Hungary, Thailand, Korea Selatan, dan Belanda. Bayaran balik berasaskan pendapatan dianggap lebih adil kerana bayaran balik hanya akan dibuat oleh mereka yang mempunyai pendapatan yang sesuai dan pada masa yang sama mengurangkan kesulitan dan risiko kegagalan membayar balik dałam kalangan peminjam berpendapatan rendah.

Dasar ini hampir dilaksanakan di Malaysia. Berikutan ucapan Bajet 2019 oleh Menteri Kewangan ketika itu Lim Guan Eng, Pengerusi PTPTN, Wan Saiful Wan Jan telah mengemukakan cadangan yang dipanggil Potongan Gaji Berjadual (PGB) yang bertujuan untuk menetapkan jadual bayaran balik pinjaman secara progresif antara 2 hingga 15 peratus dari pendapatan, bergantung kepada pendapatan bulanan peminjam7.

Cadangan itu akhirnya ditangguhkan disebabkan reaksi awam yang negatif.  Salah satu punca utama reaksi negatif tersebut adalah penetapan ambang pendapatan bulanan untuk bayaran balik pada RM2,000 yang dianggap terlalu rendah oleh orang ramai (awalnya ditetapkan pada RM1,000, angka yang mengejutkan memandangkan ianya lebih rendah daripada gaji minimum). Banyak peminjam juga kecewa kerana bayaran bulanan yang dijadualkan meningkat secara drastik, dari RM150-RM300 sebulan hingga RM1,200 sebulan. Seperti menuangkan minyak tanah dalam api, skim ini telah dicadangkan untuk diwajibkan kepada semua peminjam dan berkuatkuasa serta merta.

Secara prinsipnya, kami menyokong idea bayaran balik berasaskan pendapatan sebagai satu langkah untuk memfasilitasikan bayaran balik yang lebih tinggi dan segera di kalangan peminjam yang mampu. Namun untuk ia menjadi dasar yang boleh dilaksanakan, kita perlulah memahami kekangan yang dihadapi peminjam sedia ada dan psikologi mereka.

Pertama, pelaksanaan dasar pinjaman berasaskan pendapatan ke atas peminjam sedia ada harus dibuat secara sukarela. Mengubah jumlah bayaran balik tanpa memberi ruang dan fleksibiliti kepada peminjam untuk memilih, walaupun dalam kalangan mereka yang berpendapatan lebih tinggi, berkemungkinan akan menimbulkan kemarahan seperti yang berlaku terhadap cadangan pada tahun 2019. Untuk mendorong penerimaan dan penyertaan secara sukarela dalam skim ini, kita boleh mengambil contoh daripada pemasaran pinjaman perumahan, yang menunjukkan peminjam jumlah penjimatan yang dapat mereka nikmati dan berapa cepat mereka boleh bebas dari hutang jika mereka meningkatkan bayaran ansuran bulanan mereka.

Kedua, ambang bayaran balik haruslah munasabah dari segi ekonomi dan politik untuk mengelakkan penolakan dasar ini secara keseluruhan. Menetapkan ambang pendapatan yang terlalu rendah bukan sahaja akan mengundang reaksi negatif orang ramai, tetapi juga akan mewujudkan suasana yang membawa kepada kesulitan hutang dan kegagalan untuk membayar balik dalam kalangan peminjam berpendapatan rendah. Untuk memaksimumkan penerimaan dan keberkesanan dasar ini, kami mencadangkan agar ambang bayaran balik ditetapkan pada tahap yang membolehkan peminjam mencapai taraf hidup minimum yang wajar, sama ada selaras dengan gaji median nasional8 ataupun dengan kadar berasaskan perbelanjaan seperti yang disyorkan Belajawanku oleh Social Wellbeing Research Centre, yang mengambil kira faktor yang sangat penting, iaitu saiz isi rumah. Sebagai penanda aras, kita boleh melihat kepada Australia, dimana pendapatan peribadi median adalah $49,805 dan ambang pendapatan bayaran balik pinjaman pendidikan pada masa ini ditetapkan pada $ 46,62099.

Ketiga, penahapan bayaran balik pinjaman juga perlulah pada kadar yang boleh diterima oleh peminjam dari segi kemampuan dan pilihan peribadi mereka. Penahapan yang dicadangkan oleh PTPTN pada akhir tahun 2018 boleh dikatakan terlalu drastik. Penahapan dalam sistem bayaran berasaskan pendapatan Australia lebih beransur-ansur dalam kenaikan kadar bayarannya, berasaskan pembahagian kumpulan-kumpulan pendapatan yang lebih teliti dan tidak menuntut bayaran melebihi 10% dari pendapatan peminjam. Kami bandingkan kedua-dua jadual penahapan ini dalam Rajah 1 di bawah.

Rajah 1: Penahapan Bayaran Balik PTPTN yang Dicadangkan Malaysia 2018 berbanding Australia

5 Walau bagaimanapun, PTPTN membenarkan rundingan untuk menstruktur semula bayaran mengikut kes. Apabila ‘lockdown penuh’ kali ketiga dilaksanakan pada bulan Jun, Menteri Pengajian Tinggi mengumumkan bahawa peminjam boleh memohon penangguhan selama tiga bulan untuk membayar balik pinjaman mereka.
6 Dan penasihat sekurang-kurangnya satu kajian utama mengenai pembiayaan pendidikan tinggi yang dijalankan oleh kerajaan Malaysia.
7 Untuk menentukan tahap pendapatan peminjam, kerajaan telah menyusun kerjasama antara agensi yang melibatkan Kumpulan Wang Simpanan Pekerja (KWSP), Lembaga Hasil Dalam Negeri (LHDN), Kumpulan Wang Persaraan Diperbadankan (KWAP), Jabatan Akauntan Negara, Jabatan Urusan Gaji Angkatan Tentera dan Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA). PTPTN sendiri tidak mempunyai akses secara automatik atau rekod terkini pendapatan peminjamnya.
8 Yang mempunyai manfaat tambahan kerana ia boleh bergerak seiringan dengan pertumbuhan atau penguncupan ekonomi. Angka gaji median dikemas kini setiap tahun dalam Laporan Survei Gaji dan Upah; laporan terkini (2019) meletakkan gaji median pada kadar RM2,442.
9 Sehingga empat tahun yang lalu, ambang pendapatan berada pada sekitar $56,000 tetapi Kerajaan Australia telah menurunkannya ke tahap sekarang secara beransur-ansur.
10 Berdasarkan klasifikasi terkini B40-M40-T20 terkini oleh Jabatan Statistik.
11 Berdasarkan persentil isi rumah dan pendapatan tahunan dalam kajian oleh ACOSS / University of NSW.

Tetapi bayaran balik sahaja tidak akan mencukupi

Langkah-langkah yang diambil untuk menurunkan kadar kelalaian hutang dalam beberapa tahun kebelakangan ini boleh memberi tanggapan bahawa pungutan hutang merupakan jawapan untuk menjamin kelestarian PTPTN. Namun demikian, kebenaran yang pahit untuk ditelan adalah bahawa kalaupun kesemua hutang tertunggak telah dijelaskan (yang tidak mungkin akan berlaku), ianya masih tidak mencukupi untuk melunaskan hutang PTPTN kepada institusi-institusi kewangan dan untuk menampung kos operasi badan tersebut.

Jurang antara kadar faedah yang dikenakan oleh PTPTN ke atas peminjam dan kadar faedah yang perlu  dibayar oleh PTPTN untuk pinjamannya sendiri terlalu besar, seperti yang telah dibincangkan dalam Bahagian 1 siri penyelidikan ini. Untuk mengilustrasikan skala jurang ini, pada tahun 2018 PTPTN mengumpulkan RM400 juta bayaran faedah dari peminjam tetapi perlu membayar faedah RM1.7 bilion untuk pinjamannya sendiri12.

Pilihan yang ada adalah untuk menambah hasil daripada pungutan hutang PTPTN dan pinjaman badan itu dari institusi-institusi kewangan melalui suntikan berkala daripada kerajaan (yang sedang berlaku sekarang) atau pengambilalihan hutang oleh kerajaan13. Mana-mana tindakan ini mesti dibiayai sama ada oleh pendapatan kerajaan atau pembayar cukai. Oleh itu, ‘penyelesaian’ dasar di sini bukanlah berkaitan soal merapatkan jurang pembiayaan (namun begitu, lihat saranan untuk memperuntukkan pendapatan minyak oleh mantan ahli parlimen Rafizi Ramli14). Pada pendapat kami, ia lebih berkaitan soal meningkatkan akauntabiliti dan ketelusan dalam cara pinjaman PTPTN dibiayai. Memandangkan jumlah yang terlibat, perdebatan, analisis dan pengawasan yang lebih meluas harus berlaku.

Dalam struktur governans hari ini, tidak jelas bagaimana penggubal undang-undang dapat memainkan peranan yang bermakna dalam mengawasi PTPTN, atau siapa yang dapat memutuskan untuk mereformasikan PTPTN. Banyak pemegang taruh yang terlibat, termasuk Menteri Pengajian Tinggi, Menteri Kewangan, malah Perdana Menteri juga, yang boleh memberi sokongan untuk menggubal (atau memveto) cadangan untuk mereformasi PTPTN. Bagi meningkatkan akauntabiliti dan pengawasan, adalah lebih efektif jika PTPTN diletakkan di bawah bidang kuasa satu kementerian dan penggubal undang-undang diberi kuasa untuk memantau institusi tersebut.

Apakah lagi yang diperlukan untuk meningkatkan akauntabiliti dan ketelusan? Pertama, semua kajian yang dijalankan oleh PTPTN dan data yang dikumpulkan harus dibuka aksesnya kepada orang ramai, dan dibahaskan di parlimen dan/atau jawatankuasa-jawatankuasa yang berkenaan. Kedua, jawatankuasa pilihan khas dan kaukus parlimen mengenai PTPTN  dan pembiayaan pendidikan tinggi harus dibentuk dan diberi kuasa supaya wakil rakyat dapat membahas, menganalisis dan memberi pengawasan dengan lebih berkesan. Sebagai contoh, parlimen Australia mempunyai sebuah Jawatankuasa Tetap Senat mengenai Pendidikan dan Pekerjaan, yang membolehkan para penggubal undang-undang untuk mempertimbangkan perkara-perkara berkaitan pendidikan dan pekerjaan dan menegakkan kepentingan awam.

12 Hasil faedah pinjaman adalah hasil kos pentadbiran 3% dan ujrah 1% ke atas pinjaman pelajaran yang dikenakan kepada peminjam.
13 Contoh sebelum ini termasuk langkah menyelamatkan FELDA dan penebusan sukuk secara beransur semasa penyusunan semula Tabung Haji.
14 Selain mengusulkan rang undang-undang untuk memperuntukkan peratusan pendapatan minyak ke dalam dana pelaburan pendidikan, Rafizi juga mengusulkan penerbitan bon kerajaan baharu untuk melunaskan hutang PTPTN sebagai alternatif.

Kesimpulan

Dalam bahagian ini, kami telah mengutarakan tiga cadangan dasar untuk menangani isu hutang pendidikan yang tertunggak: penghapusan hutang separa bersasar, bayaran balik berasaskan pendapatan, dan pengawasan yang lebih teliti terhadap cara kerja dan pembiayaan PTPTN. Namun, dalam mendokong dasar-dasar ini, kami mengulangi seruan agar semua kajian dan data yang berkaitan dengan PTPTN dan pembiayaan pendidikan tinggi diterbitkan secara terbuka. Penyelidikan dasar yang lebih mantap dan mendalam mengenai pinjaman pendidikan dan pembiayaan pendidikan tinggi memerlukan ketersediaan data mikro serta sumbangan semua penyelidik, penggubal undang-undang dan  pembuat dasar yang berminat dengan isu ini – bukan hanya beberapa yang terpilih. Jangkaan impak daripada pelaksanaan langkah-langkah dasar di atas, seperti yang dibuat oleh Levy Institute di Amerika Syarikat ini, tidak dapat dilakukan di Malaysia disebabkan ketiadaan data yang boleh diakses orang ramai.

Senarai Terpilih Kajian Mengenai Hutang Pendidikan di Malaysia

Chapman, Bruce dan Michelle Tan. “The Australian University Student Financing System: The Rationale for, and Experience with, Income-contingent loans”, dalam Student Loan Schemes. Experiences of New Zealand, Australia, India and Thailand and Way Forward for Malaysia, USM Press. 2009. 38-63.

Hock-Eam, Lim, Russayani Ismail, dan Yusnidah Ibrahim. “The Implications of graduate labor market performance in designing a student loan scheme for Malaysia.” Dalam Income Contingent Loans. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014. 83-97.

Ismail, Russayani. “Equality of opportunity and student support schemes” Dalam: The 5th ASEAN Symposium on Educational Management and Leadership (ASEMAL 5), 18-19 August 2007, Legend Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. 2007 (tidak diterbitkan).

Ismail, Russayani. “A Review, Investigation and Recommendation for National Higher Education Funding (Kajian Menyemak, Mengkaji dan Mencadangkan Transformasi Pembiayaan Pengajian Tinggi Negara”. Kementerian Pendidikan dan PTPTN. 2012.

Ong Kian-Ming, Jonathan Yong, Chew Khai-Yen dan Dickson Ng, “The Sustainability of the PTPTN Loan Scheme”, Penang Institute, Disember 2016.

Cadangan penstrukturan semula PTPTN Pakatan Harapan (tidak didedahkan).

Survei PTPTN 2019 (tidak diterbitkan).

Kertas Konsultasi Awam PTPTN, April 2019 (diterbitkan sebahagian kepada umum).

Pelan Strategik PTPTN 2021.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, “Malaysia’s Student Loan Company: Tackling the PTPTN Time Bomb,” ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, April 2020.


Penyelidikan dasar yang baik yang dapat memenuhi keperluan kebolehlaksanaan ekonomi, sosial dan politik akan diperlukan tidak hanya bagi menangani isu-isu yang berkaitan dengan pinjaman pendidikan sedia ada tetapi juga untuk melakukan perubahan terhadap pinjaman pendidikan baharu pada masa hadapan. Dalam bahagian seterusnya siri penyelidikan ini, kami akan membincangkan perubahan yang lebih luas yang diperlukan dalam dasar pinjaman pendidikan dan pembiayaan pendidikan tinggi pada masa akan datang.

The Case for a Fair Work Act, Part 3

In Part 1 of this research series, we called for updating employment categories and labour laws to reflect significant changes in power relationships between employers* and workers today. Basing our framework on the Fair Work Initiative, we proposed an overarching Fair Work Act covering five pillars of employment, namely fair pay, fair working conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation.

*Note: The term ‘employer’ is used broadly throughout this piece, representing the party that either employs the worker or is the intermediary for the supply of jobs. 

The previous instalment of this series, Part 2, focused on fair pay. We discussed how current minimum wage laws lack clear standards by which a ‘minimum’ should be set, leaving it prone to over-rely on stakeholder negotiation and under-deliver on notions of fairness. We argued that the minimum wage be defined as a level that allows workers to live adequately, i.e. a ‘living’ wage. We also proposed how the idea of fair pay and fair minimum wages could work for employment categories other than full-time employees.

This third instalment of the research series will focus on the next pillar of Fair Work, namely fair working conditions. What does fair working conditions mean in Malaysia? And how would it apply to different employment categories? We asked these questions and more in this article.

What do ‘fair working conditions’ cover?

The term ‘fair working conditions’ is broad and covers a range of areas including working age, working hours and break time, worker accommodation, leave days, workplace safety and more.

Historically, laws and regulations on working conditions were first introduced during the First Industrial Revolution to curb labour exploitation and impose standards for workers’ safety and health. Rapid industrialisation had drawn thousands of workers from agricultural farming to manufacturing jobs and the lack of regulations meant many were compelled to work long hours under extreme conditions, including children. To curb such abuses, the British government established the first landmark labour law known as the British Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, at first to set the minimum working age and limit working hours. Since then, definitions and regulations for decent working conditions have broadened and evolved over the years.

There are a variety of definitions and scopes. For example, under the decent work pillar of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG), a target related to working conditions is set out to “promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, in particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment”. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) also broadly defines working conditions as humane conditions of work necessary for peace and harmony of the society. A narrower definition is offered by the Oxford Internet Institute, which focuses mainly on workers’ health and safety at work and the risks emerging from the processes of work.

In view of the above, our scoping of ‘fair working conditions’ for the proposed Fair Work Act refers mainly to measures that mitigate direct on-the-job risks which include hours of work, occupational safety and health, leave days and worker accommodation. We also discuss how to treat a more debatable dimension which relates to measures concerning broader ‘off-the-job’ risks, such as against unemployment, skill relevance, illness and ageing.

What fair working conditions mean to workers will also vary greatly depending on their employment status. Different power relationships between employer and worker would necessitate different levels of interventions from employers and the government. In the following sections, we discuss the regulations and protections required for different employment categories to achieve the ideal of ‘fair working conditions’.

Current Malaysian laws on Working Conditions

After Independence, the Malaysian government built on the British Colonial Administration’s Labour Code 1933 to introduce the Employment Act 1955 for regulating the working conditions of employees. Over the years, the government implemented supplementary laws* and ratified 18 ILO conventions to shape working conditions that meet international standards.

*Note: Read Part 1 of our Fair Work Act research series to learn more about existing labour laws.

Key pieces of current legislation related directly to working conditions are outlined in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Current Malaysian legislation on working conditions

As mentioned in Part 1, the premise of most employment legislation today hinges very much on formal, full-time employees. There are few laws covering the working conditions of those engaging in relatively independent and flexible jobs such as independent contractors and dependent contractors.

For these non-employees, their hours of work are not regulated and they are not entitled to any paid leave days. Only those whose job is regulated by a licensing entity would have to follow certain labour standards related to specific aspects of occupational health and safety such as e-hailing drivers (compulsory motor accident insurance, enforced by MOT) and farmers (standard guidelines on handling hazardous agricultural chemicals, enforced by MOHR). There are voluntary schemes to protect contractors against work accidents such as the Self-Employed Employment Injury Scheme (SEEIS) but voluntary take-up and awareness is low. There is also no regulation mandating take-up or top-down enrolment into schemes for broader risks such as unemployment or ageing/retirement, though there are voluntary programs like EPF’s i-Saraan which similarly see very low take-up.

Updating legislation to ensure fair working conditions

The changing employment landscape caused by rapid digital transformation and hiring practices has exposed massive gaps in current laws on working conditions. The following sections will discuss these shortcomings and potential policy ideas to tackle them.

Hours of work

Despite having maximum working hours of 48 hours a week, overworking remains prevalent among workers in Malaysia. According to a KRI study, about half of all workers spent more than the maximum weekly hours working, especially those in mining, administrative, and support services sectors. In 2020, the capital city Kuala Lumpur was ranked the fourth most overworked city in the world.

Regulating hours of work is mainly applicable for full-time employees that engage in shift work, which can be easily tracked unlike employees that engage in non-shift work. For these shift workers, the government currently permits up to 104 hours of overtime work every month, significantly lenient compared to the 12 hours a week limit (equivalent to 48 hours a month) endorsed by the ILO Hours of Work (Industry) Convention 1919. There is also an issue of enforcement; there have been cases of workers doing overtime without being paid the legally mandated overtime rate as reported by the Ethical Trading Initiative.

Meanwhile, be they full-time employees, independent contractors or dependent contractors, workers engaging in non-shift work face a greater risk of working excessive hours in order to complete deliverables or meet employer/client expectations. Work fatigue caused by working excessive hours heightens the risk of work-related accidents and health issues. Yet, it would be difficult to impose working hours regulations on non-shift workers due to the practicalities in time tracking as well as the workers’ own preferences.

Policy recommendations

To ensure safety against work exhaustion for shift workers, the maximum hours for overtime should be brought in line with, or closer to, the ILO recommendation – not only in number of hours but also instituting weekly limits rather than monthly limits. A safe whistleblower channel for reporting involuntary or underpaid overtime work should also be made accessible for all employees, including migrant workers.

For non-shift full-time employees and for dependent contractors, the government most likely cannot regulate their hours of work as it would be tough to track and enforce. For dependent contractors, it could also take away their job flexibility which is an attractive and preferred aspect of their job for many. That said, the government can safeguard such workers against practices that lead to overworking. Non-shift workers should also be able to access a safe whistleblower channel to report systematic or pressured overworking. Fatigue monitoring features or periodical algorithm audits can be made mandatory for companies reliant on dependent contractors, such as gig platforms, to avoid encoding overwork into the platform.

Independent contractors are usually assumed to have sufficient means and capacity to negotiate their working hours, as they have the highest degree of job autonomy and control. However, the government can still introduce legal safeguards into contract laws against involuntary overtime work, such as voiding hidden clauses or terms set by clients to compel independent contractors to work during unusual hours.

Paid leave days

Currently, only full-time employees are entitled to have a minimum of 21 paid leave days (which includes 13 days of paid public holidays), 14 days of sick leave and 60 days of hospitalisation leave in a year. Female employees have 60 consecutive days of maternity leave though this is still less than the minimum of 98 days recommended by the ILO Maternity Protection Convention. Paternity leave and childcare leave is not provided for in Malaysian law and a study by WAO has also highlighted that these are not widely granted by companies voluntarily.

By law, non-employees like dependent contractors and independent contractors are not entitled to any paid leave days regardless of hours worked.

Too many holidays?
Contrary to the popular perception that Malaysia has too many holidays, a KRI study shows that paid leave days in Malaysia are about the same as other countries if not less. Some examples: Singapore (18 days), Vietnam (22 days), Indonesia (27 days) and South Korea (30 days).

Policy recommendations

Workers of any employment category should be able to earn paid leave days in exchange for serving an accumulated number of working hours, though implementing this practice would be quite challenging for certain jobs.

Nevertheless, some examples of fair or desirable paid leave policy could be more straightforward; for instance maternity leave should get closer to the 98 days recommended by ILO. Paternity leave and childcare leave should be instituted to promote shared responsibilities in caregiving between parents.

For dependent contractors and independent contractors, the provision of paid leave days is operationally challenging because of the flexible nature of their jobs. For dependent contractors, a policy of ‘earned leave’ could be trialled out, much like qualifying for perks with accumulated hours worked or tasks performed, particularly for gig platform workers. For independent contractors, instead of mandating paid leave days, the government could establish guidelines of minimum employment terms in contract law that outlines recommended number of paid leave days commensurate with the tenure of the contract.

Occupational safety and health

There has been a decrease in fatal and non-fatal occupational injuries since the 1980s. Nevertheless, construction site accidents, hazardous working conditions in manufacturing factories, work accidents involving delivery riders and other occupational safety and health (OSH) issues are still frequently reported. One reason contributing to work accidents is the reduced capacity in law enforcement, specifically the National OSH Council that is responsible to set and monitor labour standards concerning OSH matters for various jobs and industries.

Between 2010 and 2020, the operating budget for the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) has increased from RM582.39 million to RM834.73 million and the number of employed persons has jumped from 11.90 million people to 15.22 million people. Yet, the number of public service workers for the OSH department under the MOHR has decreased from 1,855 people to 1,692 people during the same time. Using the public service worker headcount as a proxy for the government’s enforcement capacity, the OSH department is severely understaffed.

Moreover, there are new aspects of workplace safety and health matters which are excluded from the existing OSH regulatory framework, such as sexual harassment, mental burnout, worker vaccination, accidents while remote working and more.

Meanwhile, there are few regulations on OSH issues for non-employees. Workplace safety and health guidelines for specific occupations or sectors which cover both employees and non-employees are set by very few bodies like the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) and the Land Public Transport Agency (APAD), if at all.

A similar exclusion problem between employees and non-employees is also exemplified by the implementation of worker vaccination programs via the Program Imunisasi Industri Covid-19 Kerjasama Awam-Swasta (PIKAS). While the vaccination costs of employees in essential industries (i.e. agriculture, construction, manufacturing, plantation, retail) are subsidised by their employers, many non-employees working in essential services sectors, such as e-hailers, delivery riders and contract hospital cleaners have not been similarly fast-tracked nor subsidised.

Policy recommendations

At the minimum, sufficient funds and human resources should be allocated to ensure the enforcement capacity of the National OSH Council and the relevant enforcement body in conducting frequent labour inspections.

The government should make the national insurance against employment injuries (i.e. SOCSO) mandatory for all workers, regardless of their employment status. The scope of SOCSO coverage should be revised to address some of the emerging OSH issues, such as mental burnout and accidents while remote working.

With sexual harassment becoming an increasing concern, the government should review the existing labour laws and the role of the National OSH Council in shaping a safe working environment. If the government intends to introduce an Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, the National OSH Council should be included to support the enforcement of the act.

Worker accommodation

Whether it is for local workers or migrant workers, Malaysia’s current worker accommodation guidelines are severely inadequate. The past reports on the state of housing accommodation for workers indicated an average of 10 workers fitting into a room of approximately 800 to 900 square feet although sometimes 16 to 24 workers can be found in a unit. The Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has even pointed to the dire and crowded living conditions* as a major factor for COVID-19 outbreaks at workplaces, such as wet markets, manufacturing factories and construction sites.
*Note: We had previously discussed the poor living conditions of the workers’ accommodation in our past article.

Policy recommendations

Setting safe and humane workers’ housing standards for all eligible workers.

The stark difference in the multi-person accommodation guidelines between the Workers’ Minimum Standard of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Bill and the Selangor student hostel guidelines suggests that the living space standards for workers should be more adequate and humane. The government should refine the minimum housing standards to treat all workers the same. According to the ILO’s Workers’ Housing Recommendation Convention 1961, reasonable minimum living space per person and access to basic amenities (i.e. electricity, water, sanitary facilities) should be established and specified to ensure an adequate living environment for workers.

What about ‘off-the-job’ risks?

So, what about measures to protect against major uncertainties such as unemployment or obsolete skills? Or uncertainties related to life-cycle events such as illness and ageing? Should provisions against these risks also count towards ‘fair working conditions’

These broad risks affect everyone, not only workers. In fact, the current approach of having laws and initiatives based on outdated employment classification excludes those who do not belong to any category. To plug the coverage gap, we argue for an integrated national social protection system for all, which comprises a universal social safety net, a national social and health insurance and an integrated reskilling policy rather than tying these to employment status as is currently the case.

These policies go beyond a Fair Work Act and speaks to a large-scale rethink of our country’s social protection system, with universal coverage. The pandemic has exposed deep gaps in our current patchwork of social safety nets and talk of comprehensive reforms is becoming more widespread, being taken up even by the central bank. Such reforms should come hand in hand with legislation that defines fair working terms for all employment categories as well.

How should we define fair contracts? We will discuss this in the next instalment of this research series.

Email us your views or suggestions at editorial@centre.my

Perlukah Cubaan Bunuh Diri Terus Dijenayahkan di Malaysia?

Amaran: Artikel ini mengandungi perbincangan mengenai isu bunuh diri yang mungkin mengganggu perasaan pembaca.

Adakah cubaan bunuh diri suatu perbuatan jenayah? Seksyen 309 Kanun Keseksaan mengiyakan persoalan ini. Walau bagaimanapun, mengambil kira pemahaman semasa yang lebih mendalam mengenai kesihatan mental, undang-undang ini mungkin tidak lagi sesuai untuk masyarakat kita hari ini. Waktunya telah tiba untuk kita memikirkan semula implikasi respons perundangan yang mengabaikan konteks kesihatan mental yang mendorong seseorang untuk mengambil atau cuba mengambil nyawa mereka sendiri.

Kami menyeru agar undang-undang ini dimansuhkan dan digantikan oleh pendekatan yang fokusnya ialah untuk menangani penyebab utama bunuh diri, iaitu masalah kesihatan mental. Bagi kami, pendekatan yang berasaskan rawatan, yang cuba menangani masalah kesihatan mental sejak dari peringkat awal, akan dapat menurunkan kadar bunuh diri dalam masyarakat.

Tapi sebelum itu, apa itu Seksyen 309 Kanun Keseksaan dan apakah sejarahnya?

Seksyen 309 Kanun Keseksaan
Barang siapa mencuba melakukan kesalahan membunuh diri, dan melakukan apa-apa perbuatan pada melakukan kesalahan itu, hendaklah dihukum dengan penjara selama tempoh yang boleh sampai setahun, atau dengan denda, atau dengan kedua-duanya.

Cubaan Bunuh Diri Sebagai Satu Jenayah

Seksyen 309 Kanun Keseksaan digubal di Malaya pada tahun 1936 dan merupakan sebahagian daripada warisan zaman kolonial yang masih diguna pakai dalam sistem perundangan Malaysia. Akta ini berasal dari Kanun Keseksaan India yang berdasarkan Common Law British. Pada masa itu, isu kesihatan mental serta punca atau rawatannya belum difahami dengan baik.

Pada masa kini, pengetahuan tentang kesihatan mental telah berkembang dengan signifikan: pemikiran bunuh diri telah dikenal pasti berpunca daripada pelbagai faktor, termasuk tekanan kewangan, kesedihan, kehilangan orang yang tersayang dan banyak lagi. Terdapat pemahaman secara meluas pada hari ini bahawa kemerosotan kesihatan mental seseorang merupakan reaksi terhadap keadaan sosial dan ekonomi mereka.

Sejumlah negara yang lain juga telah menerima pakai Kanun Keseksaan India dalam perundangan mereka. Namun negara-negara tersebut, contohnya Singapura dan Sri Lanka, telah pun memansuhkan atau meminda versi Seksyen 309 masing-masing. Banyak negara di ASEAN juga tidak lagi melihat cubaan bunuh diri sebagai suatu perbuatan jenayah. Walau bagaimanapun, Malaysia masih belum menyusuli langkah perubahan seperti ini.

Pada ketika ini, respons kerajaan Malaysia terhadap cubaan bunuh diri memberikan isyarat yang kurang jelas tentang pendirian mereka tentang isu ini. Di satu pihak, terdapat pandangan (yang sememangnya patut kita ikuti) bahawa cubaan bunuh diri  merupakan satu isu kesihatan mental yang perlu dirawat: Dasar Operasi Rawatan Psikiatri dan Kesihatan Mental Kementerian Kesihatan menyatakan bahawa jika seseorang dirujuk untuk menerima rawatan perubatan kerana cubaan bunuh diri, mereka akan diletakkan di bawah pengawasan yang ketat sehingga mereka disahkan telah berada dalam keadaan stabil dan tidak akan membahayakan diri mereka sendiri.

Sementara itu, kaedah perundangan pula nampaknya tidak mengambil kira aspek kesihatan mental: bagi mereka yang didakwa di bawah Seksyen 309, adalah tidak jelas jika mereka dirujuk untuk menerima rawatan perubatan atau psikologi setelah atau semasa dijatuhkan hukuman. Apabila undang-undang menjenayahkan cubaan bunuh diri, kita akan berdepan dengan situasi di mana orang ramai enggan tampil ke hadapan untuk meminta pertolongan walaupun ia telah tersedia, kerana mereka bimbang akan dihukum jika mereka meminta pertolongan.

Dekriminalisasi Cubaan Bunuh Diri di Malaysia

Walaupun seruan untuk mendekriminalisasikan cubaan bunuh diri semakin kuat, tiada tindakan yang substantif telah diambil. Pada tahun 2012, Jawatankuasa Pembaharuan Undang-Undang kerajaan Malaysia telah mencuba untuk mengkaji semula Seksyen 309. Pada tahun yang sama juga, Menteri Kesihatan telah menyatakan bahawa undang-undang tersebut tidak lagi relevan kerana ia tidak mengambil kira isu kesihatan mental.

Sejak itu, beberapa badan dan NGO seperti Persatuan Kesihatan Mental Malaysia (MMHA), Persatuan Kebangsaan Hak Asasi Manusia (HAKAM), dan Majlis Penasihat Promosi Kesihatan Mental telah berulang kali mendesak kerajaan untuk memansuhkan undang-undang tersebut.

Pada tahun 2019, kerajaan Pakatan Harapan telah menyatakan komitmen untuk meminda Kanun Keseksaan supaya cubaan bunuh diri tidak lagi dikira sebagai suatu perbuatan jenayah. Namun, tiada perbincangan lanjut telah berlaku selepas itu. Walau bagaimanapun, sejak kebelakangan ini tuntutan dekriminalisasi telah dihidupkan semula apabila seorang penganggur dijatuhkan hukuman di bawah Seksyen 309 dan didenda sebanyak RM3,000 kerana cubaan bunuh diri. Walaupun hukuman yang dikenakan ‘hanya’ denda, kes ini tetap menimbulkan persoalan jika bunuh diri patut dianggap sebagai perbuatan jenayah dan bukannya suatu tragedi yang menimpa seseorang.

Keperluan sokongan kesihatan mental

Selaras dengan dekriminalisasi cubaan bunuh diri, kita juga perlu mewujudkan struktur-struktur untuk membantu mereka yang mempunyai pemikiran bunuh diri dan yang menghadapi masalah kesihatan mental. Sekiranya Malaysia ingin mengambil langkah ini, apakah yang kita perlukan? Di sini kami melihat kerangka kesihatan mental yang sedia ada di negara lain yang sama ada telah melaksanakan langkah ini, atau telah mengambil pendekatan yang lebih progresif terhadap kesihatan mental.

Pada awal tahun lepas, Singapura telah mendekriminalisasikan cubaan bunuh diri dengan meminda akta Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act. Pindaan ini menetapkan bahawa individu yang memerlukan bantuan dirujuk kepada ahli professional kesihatan mental, dan pakar-pakar dari pelbagai sektor – kesihatan mental, kesihatan fizikal dan perkhidmatan sosial boleh membuat intervensi kesihatan mental dengan sokongan undang-undang.

Di Ireland, National Office for Suicide Prevention membiayai National Self Harm Registry. Pangkalan data ini membolehkan pihak berkuasa mengenal pasti kejadian mencederakan diri sendiri yang berulang dan menyalurkan rawatan kesihatan mental yang sesuai kepada individu yang terbabit. Model ini sesuai untuk dibangunkan di Malaysia, memandangkan ia akan membolehkan pelbagai agensi dan NGO serta pihak berkuasa mengenal pasti individu yang berisiko serta memantau dan menyediakan bantuan secara berterusan.

Sementara itu, sistem penjagaan kesihatan Thailand menggunakan satu sistem pengawasan dan perawatan. Ini adalah kerangka pelbagai langkah yang merangkumi pemeriksaan, perawatan dan tindakan susulan. Sejak ia mula diperkenalkan pada tahun 2009 sehingga tahun 2016, sistem ini telah dapat diakses oleh 48.5% individu yang mengalami gangguan kemurungan. Sebelum sistem ini diperkenalkan, hanya 3.7% individu yang mengalami gangguan kemurungan telah dapat mengakses perkhidmatan kesihatan mental Thailand.

Mengambil pengajaran daripada pendekatan penjagaan kesihatan mental komuniti seperti di atas, kami berharap suatu sistem di mana individu yang cuba untuk membunuh diri dirujuk oleh pihak berkuasa untuk mendapatkan bantuan kesihatan mental dapat diwujudkan di Malaysia. Dari sini, haruslah juga ada pemantauan yang meluas dan berterusan – ini adalah langkah yang penting kerana risiko cubaan bunuh diri untuk berulang adalah tinggi jika individu terlibat tidak mengikut rawatan yang diterima dengan sepenuhnya. Untuk menjayakan usaha sebegini, penyediaan sumber seperti  dana yang lebih tinggi untuk pekerja sosial dan daftar yang selamat bagi individu yang berisiko mirip National Self-Harm Registry di Ireland harus dipertimbangkan oleh kerajaan.

Program Pusat Kesihatan Mental Masyarakat (MENTARI) oleh Kementerian Kesihatan, yang berfokuskan komuniti, mungkin merupakan platform paling sesuai untuk melaksanakan kerangka seperti ini. Selain menawarkan sokongan kesihatan mental dan jangkauan kesedaran, pusat-pusat MENTARI yang wujud di seluruh negara juga memberi perhatian kepada pengurusan kes-kes yang berisiko untuk membunuh diri. Kajian kes di Timur Tengah telah menunjukkan bahawa pendekatan berasaskan komuniti lebih efektif dalam menangani isu kesihatan mental dan boleh meringankan beban sistem kesihatan yang sedia ada.

Ke Arah Pemansuhan Seksyen 309

Undang-undang baharu dan perubahan kepada undang-undang yang sedia ada boleh menjadi asas bagi perubahan budaya. Sistem perundangan dapat memberi isyarat kepada masyarakat tentang cara yang kerajaan ingin gunakan untuk menangani isu-isu tertentu. Ia juga dapat menjadi barometer penerimaan masyarakat. Lapan tahun telah berlalu sejak Jawatankuasa Pembaharuan Undang-Undang berbicara untuk mengkaji semula Seksyen 309 – bilakah pembuat dasar akan memajukan perbincangan ini?

Juga, tidak cukup untuk kita hanya sekadar bercakap tentang bagaimana cubaan untuk membunuh diri didorong oleh masalah kesihatan mental: pada akhirnya, kita perlu memastikan sistem perundangan mencerminkan aspek ini. Apabila cubaan bunuh diri didekriminalisasikan, kerajaan akan memberi isyarat kepada masyarakat bahawa bunuh diri bukan lagi topik yang tabu, bahawa ia bukan satu jenayah tetapi sebaliknya ialah isu kesihatan mental, dan bahawa cubaan bunuh diri ialah satu jeritan meminta pertolongan. Individu penderita pemikiran bunuh diri dan yang pernah cuba untuk membunuh diri bukanlah mereka yang perlu dihantar ke penjara atau didenda. Sebaliknya mereka ternyata mengalami masalah kesihatan mental yang patut dirawat dengan sebaiknya. Kita boleh menyediakan rawatan yang terbaik jika satu kerangka yang efektif yang berasaskan sifat empati dan rawatan dapat diwujudkan.

Sekiranya anda mengalami tekanan emosi, anda boleh mendapatkan khidmat sokongan daripada Befrienders (24 jam) di talian 03-76272929 secara percuma.

Ke Arah Penggubalan Akta Kerja Adil, Bahagian 1

Sejak sebelum pandemik COVID-19 lagi, kepesatan transformasi digital dan model-model bisnes yang baru telah merubah sifat dan cara bekerja di seluruh dunia. Semakin banyak pekerjaan tidak formal telah diwujudkan, yang bercirikan tugasan secara one-off, waktu kerja yang fleksibel dan syarat kemasukan yang mudah. Di Malaysia, kerja-kerja ini termasuk tetapi tidak terhad kepada ‘gig‘ di platform-platform seperti Grab, Foodpanda dan GoGet.

Pertumbuhan pekerjaan seperti ini belum dapat dicerminkan melalui statistik pekerjaan rasmi. Di Malaysia, seperti yang dilaporkan Jabatan Statistik (DOSM), sesiapa yang diklasifikasikan sebagai ‘pekerja’ (employee) merupakan mereka yang menikmati status pekerjaan yang terbesar dan paling stabil. Sepanjang 20 tahun kebelakangan ini, golongan ini terdiri daripada kira-kira 75% daripada jumlah tenaga kerja di negara ini (Rajah 1).


Rajah 1: Trend Status Pekerjaan *, 1999 hingga 2019

*Definisi Status Pekerjaan DOSM:

Pekerja – Seorang yang bekerja untuk majikan persendirian dan menerima ganjaran tetap seperti upah, gaji, komisen, tip atau upahan yang berbentuk mata benda.

Bekerja sendiri – Seorang yang mengerjakan ladang, perniagaan atau perusahaan sendiri tanpa menggaji pekerja di ladang, perniagaan atau perusahaannya.

Pekerja keluarga tanpa gaji – Seorang yang bekerja tanpa menerima sebarang bayaran atau upah di ladang, perniagaan atau perusahaan yang dijalankan oleh ahli keluarganya yang lain.

Majikan – Seorang yang menjalankan sesuatu perniagaan, perusahaan ladang atau perniagaan lain dan menggaji seorang pekerja atau lebih untuk menolongnya.

Statistik di atas menyamarkan dua isu yang signifikan mengenai pekerjaan di Malaysia. Isu pertama adalah takat pekerjaan tidak formal yang kurang jelas. Jika dilihat secara sepintas lalu, klasifikasi di atas memberikan gambaran seolah-olah majoriti tenaga kerja di Malaysia bekerja secara formal.

Namun, realitinya adalah  sebahagian dari mereka, yang jumlahnya tidak diketahui, terdiri daripada pekerja tidak formal, iaitu seorang yang bekerja untuk majikan swasta, menerima gaji, tetapi berkemungkinan tidak dilindungi oleh kontrak kerja, skim perlindungan sosial, faedah kerja atau hak pekerja. Secara proksi, menggunakan angka perlindungan KWSP, pekerja tidak formal boleh dianggarkan dalam kira–kira 62% dari tenaga kerja kita.

Isu kedua yang kurang jelas dalam statistik pekerjaan ini adalah sifat pekerjaan tidak formal itu sendiri yang sering berubah. Pelbagai proses informalisasi telah berlaku di Malaysia, dari pertumbuhan platform kerja gig, hingga pertumbuhan pekerjaan digital jarak jauh, ke peralihan dari kontrak pekerjaan terbuka ke kontrak sementara atau yang berasaskan projek. Menurut kajian Tinjauan Ekonomi 2021 Malaysia, apa yang dipanggil ‘ekonomi gig’ ini merupakan bidang pertumbuhan yang baharu di negara ini. Walau bagaimanapun, soal sama ada pekerja-pekerja gig adalah usahawan mikro atau pekerja tidak formal masih tidak jelas dan masih belum dibincangkan secara mendalam.


Apakah maksud “Ekonomi Gig”?

Rider penghantaran makanan dan pemandu e-hailing adalah antara pekerjaan yang sering dikaitkan dengan istilah kerja gig. Tapi bagaimana pula dengan tuan rumah Airbnb? Pekerja bebas (freelancer) yang menawarkan perkhidmatan mereka di Fiverr atau Upwork? Lebih jauh lagi, adakah petani dan nelayan yang menjual hasil mereka secara atas talian merupakan pekerja gig juga?

Mengapakah persoalan ini penting? Istilah ‘ekonomi gig’ dan ‘pekerja gig’ seperti yang disebutkan dalam ucapan rasmi, media dan juga dalam dokumen dasar hari ini telah digunakan untuk merangkumi pelbagai jenis pekerjaan, dan lebih penting lagi, pelbagai jenis hubungan antara pekerja dan majikan. Walaupun kami bersetuju bahawa ada keperluan untuk menangani masalah yang dihadapi oleh pekerja gig, kami juga berpendapat bahawa penggubal dasar perlu menjelaskan siapakah yang dimaksudkan sebagai pekerja berkenaan.

Kami juga berpandangan bahawa dalam usaha menjelaskan definisi ini, konsep dan rangka kerja semasa yang berkaitan dengan status pekerjaan perlu dikemaskinikan.

Apa yang membezakan pekerja gig dengan istilah masa lalu yang digunakan untuk merujuk kepada pekerja tidak formal, seperti istilah ‘berasaskan perusahaan’ (contohnya pekerja bekerja sendiri, pekerja bebas, usahawan mikro, solopreneur) atau istilah ‘berasaskan tenaga pekerja’ (contohnya pekerja sementara atau pekerja kasual)? Bagi kami perbezaannya adalah dari segi hubungan kuasa antara pekerja dan majikan* atau sifat sesuatu pekerjaan. Bagi kami hubungan kuasa antara pekerja dan mana-mana majikan atau entiti pekerjaan harus menjadi kriteria teras dalam inisiatif untuk merangka perundangan dan dasar berkenaan pekerja yang baharu.

*Catatan: Dari sini, istilah ‘majikan’ akan digunakan sebagai singkatan (dan bukan sebagai istilah perundangan) untuk merujuk kepada pihak yang  mengupah tenaga kerja atau yang menjadi perantara yang menyediakan peluang pekerjaan.


Peri pentingnya hubungan kuasa dalam pekerjaan

Hubungan kuasa antara majikan dan pekerja dapat dilihat dari segi tahap kawalan yang dipunyai oleh majikan ke atas keadaan kerja serta tahap kebergantungan pekerja terhadap majikan untuk memastikan kelangsungan hidup mereka. Rangka kerja ini telah dicadangkan dalam kajian oleh Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose UCL pada Julai 2020 sebagai satu cara untuk memahami hubungan kuasa dalam pekerjaan dan sebagai satu rangka kerja untuk mengklasifikasikan status pekerjaan (Rajah 2).

Rajah 2: Rangka Kerja Hubungan Kuasa dalam Pekerjaan

Pekerja yang berdepan dengan tahap kawalan yang tinggi terhadap banyak aspek penting pekerjaan mereka (seperti waktu bekerja, gaji bersih maksimum dan laporan kerja) dan yang sangat bergantung kepada majikan (contohnya untuk mendapatkan sebahagian besar gaji bersih) boleh dikategorikan sebagai pekerja tetap, tidak kira sama ada terdapat perjanjian rasmi atau tidak.

Sebaliknya, mereka yang bekerja dengan sedikit atau tanpa kawalan majikan dan yang tidak terikat dengan hanya satu majikan bagi menjana sebahagian besar pendapatan mereka boleh dikategorikan sebagai kontraktor bebas.

Pekerja yang terletak di antara kategori ‘pekerja tetap’ dan ‘kontraktor bebas’ inilah yang telah menimbulkan cabaran terbesar kepada proses pembuatan dasar pada masa ini. Ditermakan sebagai kontraktor “bergantung” (“reliant atau “dependent”) oleh penyelidik UCL, perbezaan hubungan kuasa antara pekerja ini tidak digambarkan dan difahami dengan jelas pada masa ini. Hal ini boleh menyebabkan pelabelan atau pengkategorian yang tidak sesuai.

Menilai status pekerjaan melalui lensa hubungan kuasa juga bermakna cara kita mengkategorikan pekerja perlu lebih mendalam daripada hanya mengambil kira jumlah jam bekerja, jenis kontrak atau definisi pekerjaan. Pekerja yang melakukan aktiviti pekerjaan yang sama tidak semestinya mempunyai status pekerjaan yang sama kerana mungkin terdapat tahap kawalan dan pergantungan yang berbeza dalam pekerjaan itu.

Cuba kita ambil rider penghantaran sebagai contoh. Ada dari mereka yang diupah oleh syarikat kurier yang mengenakan syarat yang ketat dari segi waktu bekerja, tempoh notis, kebebasan untuk bekerja di tempat lain, dan parameter tugasan lain yang menyekat autonomi dan keupayaan mereka untuk mempelbagaikan pendapatan. Golongan ini semestinya perlu dikategorikan sebagai ‘pekerja tetap’ disebabkan kadar kawalan dan pergantungan yang terdapat dalam hubungan antara mereka dan majikan.

Rider penghantaran yang menawarkan perkhidmatan mereka kepada pelanggan secara langsung, baik dengan cara pengiklanan secara fizikal mahupun di halaman Facebook, secara asasnya  adalah ‘kontraktor bebas’ yang mempunyai tahap kawalan yang tinggi terhadap kebanyakan aspek pekerjaan mereka. Sebaliknya, rider penghantaran yang mendapat pekerjaan melalui syarikat platform gig yang mengawal sebahagian tetapi bukan semua aspek pekerjaan seperti peruntukan tugas, akses kepada pelanggan akhir, etika pakaian dan lain-lain, lebih sesuai dikategorikan sebagai ‘kontraktor bergantung’.

Apabila lensa hubungan kuasa antara pekerja dan majikan diaplikasikan pada pekerjaan yang biasanya dikaitkan dengan ‘ekonomi gig’, kita akan dapat melihat kepelbagaian dalam hubungan ini untuk aktiviti pekerjaan yang sama (Rajah 3).


Rajah 3: Kerja ‘Gig’ Tipikal dan Kebarangkalian Status Pekerjaan (Ilustrasi)

Pemahaman mengenai hubungan kuasa yang mendasari sesuatu jenis pekerjaan adalah adalah sangat penting, kerana hubungan kuasa yang berbeza menghasilkan keperluan dan isu-isu pekerja yang berbeza. Memahami hubungan kuasa juga penting untuk menentukan pembahagian tanggungjawab antara tenaga kerja, majikan dan kerajaan.

Bagi pekerja tetap sepenuh masa, jelas bahawa majikan perlu menjamin pendaftaran dan sumbangan ke dalam skim perlindungan sosial, tetapi bagaimana pula dengan kontraktor bergantung? Perlukah tanggungjawab tersebut dipikul oleh pekerja seperti dalam kes kontraktor bebas?

Persoalan mengenai apakah tahap hak dan faedah pekerja yang adil sebagai pertukaran dengan tahap kawalan yang tertentu (dan tanggungjawab siapa untuk menyediakan hak dan faedah tersebut) merupakan sebab utama kami menyeru supaya perbincangan yang menyentuh isu-isu pokok diadakan dan pada akhirnya, satu Akta Kerja Adil digubal.


Dari hubungan kuasa ke Akta Kerja Adil

Mengapakah kita perlukan ‘Akta Kerja Adil’ dan bukannya ‘Akta Pekerja Gig’ seperti yang dilaporkan sedang dipertimbangkan oleh kerajaan? Dalam bahagian di atas, kami telah menghujahkan tentang keperluan untuk memahami hubungan kuasa antara tenaga kerja dan majikan dalam lanskap pekerjaan semasa terlebih dahulu. Hujah yang seterusnya untuk menyokong seruan kami ke arah Akta Kerja Adil yang meluas menyentuh persoalan sama ada undang-undang semasa adalah mencukupi untuk kita mendepani cabaran kepelbagaian jenis pekerjaan dan hubungan kuasa di Malaysia. Juga, bolehkah undang-undang semasa menghuraikan dengan jelas apakah prinsip-prinsip yang akan mengawal selia hubungan kuasa yang berlainan ini secara adil? Jawapan kami ialah tidak, melainkan ada pengubahsuaian yang ketara.

Pertama sekali, perlu ditekankan di sini bahawa kedua-dua klasifikasi tenaga kerja yang sedia ada tidak mencukupi. Ketika ini, anda sama ada pekerja formal (sepenuh masa atau separuh masa*) yang dikawal selia oleh Akta Kerja 1955 dan undang-undang lain yang berkaitan, atau kontraktor yang bergantung pada Akta Pekerjaan Sendiri 2017 dan Akta Kontrak 1950 (Rajah 4). Masih tiada klasifikasi yang merangkum hubungan kuasa yang dialami oleh golongan pekerja yang ketiga yang jumlahnya semakin berkembang, iaitu kontraktor bergantung.


*Catatan: Walaupun undang-undang dan peraturan semasa meliputi pekerja separuh masa, klasifikasi ini sukar untuk dilaksanakan secara praktikal.


Rajah 4: Undang-Undang Semasa Bagi Pekerja Malaysia

Kedua, premis mengenai status pekerjaan dan juga perundangan semasa terlalu bergantung pada andaian formalisasi, iaitu soal sama ada seseorang mempunyai kontrak pekerjaan atau didaftarkan sebagai pekerja bekerja sendiri. Memahami dan mengambil kira status pekerjaan dalam konteks yang menguji tahap kawalan majikan dan pergantungan pekerja merupakan cara yang lebih tepat untuk mengklasifikasikan pekerja berbanding hanya melihat kepada kewujudan kontrak pekerjaan sebagai kompas untuk mengenal pasti status pekerja (Rajah 5).


Rajah 5: Perbandingan Definisi ‘Pekerja’

Di Malaysia, kita perlulah berwaspada apabila kita merangka klasifikasi pekerja. Dengan menerapkan lensa hubungan kuasa, pemahaman yang lebih kukuh dan tersusun mengenai kepelbagaian status pekerjaan semasa akan dapat dikembangkan. Lebih penting lagi, dengan pemahaman yang jelas mengenai hubungan kuasa yang mendasari kelas-kelas pekerjaan yang berlainan, kita akan boleh bincangkan secara terbuka tentang apakah faedah-faedah yang secara adil harus diberikan oleh pihak majikan dan kerajaan kepada pekerja berdasarkan klasifikasi mereka.

Persoalan seterusnya di sini ialah apakah keadaan kerja yang adil bila kita mengambil kira perihal hubungan kuasa dalam pekerjaan? Sebagai jawapan, kami merujuk kepada Fair Work Initiative, satu pusat sumber ekonomi digital yang dibangunkan Oxford Internet Institute, yang menyarankan lima prinsip utama kerja adil, iaitu: gaji yang adil, keadaaan kerja yang adil, kontrak yang adil, pengurusan yang adil, dan perwakilan yang adil (Rajah 6).


Rajah 6: Prinsip-Prinsip Kerja Adil

Gabungan prinsip kerja yang adil dengan rangka kerja hubungan kuasa akan membantu penggubal dasar untuk menetapkan peraturan pekerjaan yang paling sesuai bagi setiap klasifikasi pekerjaan. Apakah peruntukan minimum ‘kerja adil’ yang perlu diberi kepada pekerja tetap, sama ada formal atau tidak formal? Apakah peruntukan minimum ‘kerja adil’ yang perlu diberi kepada kontraktor bebas berbanding dengan kontraktor bergantung?

Dalam bahagian seterusnya siri penyelidikan ini, kami akan mencadangkan contoh prinsip kerja adil bagi tiga klasifikasi pekerjaan utama yang telah kami huraikan, iaitu pekerja tetap, kontraktor bebas dan kontraktor bergantung.


Perundangan dan kerangka dasar harus dikemas kini secara seiringan

Ketika artikel ini ditulis, beberapa negara termasuk Perancis, Sepanyol dan Belanda telah mengklasifikasikan semula sebahagian pekerja gig tidak formal mereka sebagai pekerja tetap. Walaubagaimanapun, sebab di sebalik tindakan ini diambil tidak sama antara negara-negara tersebut – ianya sangat bergantung pada definisi tempatan istilah ‘pekerja tetap’, ‘kontraktor’ dan ‘pekerja gig’, selain faktor–faktor yang lain. Dalam beberapa keadaan, definisi yang terlalu luas untuk istilah ‘pekerja gig’ telah membawa akibat yang tidak dijangka; dalam kes di California misalnya, ramai pekerja bebas kehilangan pekerjaan mereka setelah undang-undang AB 5 diluluskan, kerana ‘majikan’ mereka tidak mampu mengklasifikasikan semula mereka sebagai pekerja tetap sebagaimana yang dimandatkan oleh undang-undang baru tersebut (yang sejak itu telah dibatalkan).

Malaysia harus mengamati dan mengambil iktibar dari keputusan mahkamah seperti di atas. Perkara utama dari segi dasar yang perlu diputuskan tidak semestinya berkaitan persoalan sama ada untuk memformalkan pekerja atau mengadakan undang-undang khusus untuk pekerja gig. Sebaliknya, kita perlu jelas apa yang kita maksudkan dengan klasifikasi pekerjaan kita bagi membolehkan ia merangkumi persekitaran pekerjaan yang dinamik dan sering berubah di Malaysia. Hanya dengan cara ini kita akan dapat memperbaiki atau merapatkan jurang dalam undang-undang semasa untuk menjamin kerja yang adil bagi pekerja hari ini dan membantu mereka yang telah ketinggalan.

Keputusan penting Mahkamah Agung UK mengenai Uber pada bulan Februari yang lalu memberikan contoh instruktif klasifikasi pekerjaan yang  (i) berdasarkan hubungan kuasa dan (ii) mengatasi dikotomi antara pekerja dan kontraktor bebas.

Berikutan tuntutan yang difailkan oleh sekumpulan bekas e-hailer Uber, Mahkamah Agung UK memutuskan untuk mengklasifikasikan semula sekumpulan 40,000 pemandu Uber UK sebagai “pekerja” yang berhak mendapat gaji minimum, cuti bergaji dan faedah yang lain. Ini disebabkan amalan pihak pengurusan Uber sepanjang tempoh perkhidmatan bekas pemandu-pemandu e-hailer berkenaan yang tidak membenarkan pekerja untuk merundingkan tambang dan mengakses maklumat tugasan sebelum mereka menerima sesuatu tugasan. Terdapat dua aspek yang mustahak untuk diperhatikan dalam keputusan ini:

(i) Kepentingan hubungan kuasa. Keputusan itu hanya melibatkan kumpulan pemandu e-hailing Uber tertentu yang bekerja dengan Uber sebelum tahun 2016 yang terjejas oleh kerana dasar syarikat yang menyebabkan autonomi pekerjaan lebih rendah berbanding dengan kumpulan pemandu Uber yang kemudian.

(ii) Klasifikasi yang ‘ketiga’. Keputusan itu mengklasifikasikan pemandu e-hailing yang terjejas sebagai ‘pekerja’ (‘workers’), satu status yang mencerminkan tahap fleksibiliti yang lebih tinggi berbanding ‘pekerja tetap’ (‘employees‘). Walau bagaimanapun, status ini tetap tertakluk pada peruntukan hak dan faedah seperti yang dinyatakan oleh undang-undang pekerja UK.

Bagaimanakah kita boleh menentukan gaji yang adil bagi setiap klasifikasi pekerjaan? Nantikan bahagian seterusnya dari siri penyelidikan ini.

Hartal Doktor Kontrak And The Government Contract Worker Issue

Amidst a deadly surge of COVID-19 cases and the attendant exhaustion of frontline health workers, two grassroots campaigns under the names Code Black and Hartal Doktor Kontrak are demanding fairer treatment – including job security – for government contract doctors.

The seriousness of the issue is underscored by its escalation:  campaigners have called for a national strike on 26 July 2021 while individual campaign supporters have been called in by the police for questioning. Meanwhile, the government has responded with what appears to be a temporary solution to address some of the campaigns’ demands.

These campaigns powerfully illustrate a critical problem we are currently researching, which arise when employment categories do not reflect the nature of the job commitment and are also not matched up to fair working terms. In this primer, we unpack the problem from the government contract worker perspective.


The Growth of Contract Doctors

At the time of writing, the Malaysian Ministry of Health (MOH) employs nearly 270,000 permanent public service workers, of which 150,000 to 160,000 are healthcare workers. The number of permanent employees at MOH has remained relatively stable as shown in Figure 1 below, decreasing marginally from 268,712 people in 2016 to 267,733 people in 2021. However, MOH’s expenditure on emoluments rose in that time period, from RM13.45 billion to RM17.08 billion. 

Much of that is contributed by emoluments to contract workers. As per Figure 1 below, the upward trend in MOH’s contract worker emoluments, from RM78.83 million in 2016 (or 1% of total MOH emoluments) to RM1.90 billion in 2021 (11% of total MOH emoluments), point to the rising number of contract workers within the ministry. According to a past report, MOH has the highest expenditure on contract workers compared to other government ministries. 

Figure 1: Breakdown of MOH Worker Emoluments vs. Number of MOH Permanent Workers, 2016 to 2021

Since the implementation of the contract system for healthcare workers in late 2016, the number of contract doctors has grown more than nine times, from 2,544 doctors to about 23,000 people in 2021. This is partially due to the glut in number of medical graduates, partially to rules governing medical graduate placement, and partially to constraints in the government’s budget for permanent workers (more on that later).

The oversupply of medical graduates has caused overcrowding of doctor trainees at public hospitals, but the regulation on their medical placements is also a contributing factor. According to the Medical Act 1971 (Amendment 2012), the government has to provide industrial training placements for all medical graduates intending to practise medicine in Malaysia before they can be fully registered as licensed practitioners.

Medical graduates can be placed either as contract junior doctors or, more unlikely, as permanent junior doctors. Contract junior doctors are offered a five-year contract divided into three years of housemanship and two years as a junior medical officer, whereas permanent junior doctors become permanent public service workers. Upon completing the five-year term, most contract doctors have to seek new job opportunities elsewhere whereas permanent doctors may choose to continue their employment with the government or leave for the private sector.

The government has the option to convert contract doctors to permanent government doctors if a position becomes available in the public healthcare system. However, there are severe budgetary limitations on the number of doctors, or other occupations for that matter, that the government may take on as permanent staff. For example, to fulfil the demands of the Code Black and Hartal Doktor Kontrak campaigns to become permanent doctors, the government has estimated that it will cost an additional RM2 billion (we infer annually), which is around 12% of MOH’s annual emoluments expenditure today. As permanent public service workers are also eligible to receive a lifetime pension, even this number may be an underestimate.

As of the time of writing, only 3.41% of all contract doctors have landed a permanent position at MOH. More than two-thirds of those who began their service in 2016 have completed their five-year contract and have yet to secure a permanent placement elsewhere. The MOH currently offers its contract doctors a one-off one-year contract extension to meet the demands for healthcare workers during the pandemic. More recently, in response to the Code Black and Hartal Doktor Kontrak, the government has promised a maximum of four years’ contract extension and paid study leave for all contract medical officers and other contract healthcare professionals.


Issue 1: Creation Of A New Problem To Avoid An Old Difficult Problem

Taking on workers on a contract basis has become increasingly important in government recruitment as a way to cope with rising expenditure. Hiring full-time employees into the public service is extremely costly, in terms of emoluments but particularly in terms of pensions.

Over the last decade, the government has kept about the same number of permanent public service workers (Figure 2) while the number of pensioners increased from 617,637 people in 2011 to 834,484 people in 2019. And yet the share of public spending on emolument, pension and gratuities of the total budget has surged from 27% of total expenditure in 2011 to 36% in 2021. As per Figure 2 below, between 2011 and 2021 federal government spending on emoluments has increased from RM45.56 billion to RM84.53 billion while pensions have jumped from RM12.26 billion to RM27.53 billion. 

Figure 2: Federal Government Spending on Emoluments and Pensions vs. Number of Permanent Public Service Workers, 2011 to 2021

Recruiting workers under contract has provided some breathing space for the government (and taxpayers) in terms of budget control, particularly in avoiding a hefty pension bill down the line. However, there is no indication whether this is a stop-gap measure or essentially a permanent solution to government hiring. If it is the latter, then it will become a significant problem and the current campaigns by the contract junior doctors will just be the beginning of more to come.

Instead of recruiting full-time permanent employees, the government could continue to hire contract workers whose employment terms can be extended repeatedly if needed. In many cases, junior doctors being one of them, this creates a double standard between two classes of workers who essentially perform the same function and who have the same job demands. The existence of two worker classes which are so closely comparable is unsustainable, and will be continuously tested by demands for fairness and parity until the difference in employment terms and entitlements between permanent employees and contract workers is meaningfully addressed.


Issue 2: Employment Category Does Not Reflect Work Commitment

The term ‘contract’ indicates a level of job flexibility and worker independence compared to permanent full-time employees. Flexibility and independence can be the case for experienced medical consultants, but not really for fresh house officers or junior medical officers. The employment demands on contract and permanent doctors who are performing their five-year industrial training placement is practically identical.

Despite having similar job scopes and level of job autonomy as permanent doctors of the same tenure, contract doctors have a lower salary and a lower set of benefits. Figure 3 below shows the difference in salaries and benefits between contract doctors and permanent doctors.

Figure 3: Difference in Salaries and Benefits between Contract Doctors and Permanent Doctors

Since contract doctors have the same responsibilities and workloads as permanent doctors, they appear to be misclassified and their employment status does not reflect their job nature and level of autonomy at work. Going by the principles of the Fair Work Act mentioned in our past article, they should be qualified for the same pay and same benefits as permanent doctors. Admittedly though, changing the employment status of contract doctors is a difficult decision due to the hefty costs of permanent public sector workers’ entitlements or compensation, as mentioned earlier.


Path to resolution complex and politically difficult, but needed

Addressing the issue of government contract workers requires a major change in policy, not only in defining what ‘contract worker’ means but also in rationalising the entitlements or compensation of permanent public sector employees.

It is estimated that the spending for emolument, pension and gratuities could take up to 60% of total government revenue by 2026 if nothing changes. At some point, the government of the day will need to take the extremely difficult decision of pruning the pension entitlements for new permanent public sector employees and replacing it with a defined contribution retirement plan. This is already being done for full-time employees of statutory agencies; the coverage will need to be extended to all levels and government entities in order to rein in costs. The notion of ‘lifetime’ job guarantee for public service workers would also have to change.

Update: Maybe the above is not as politically difficult as we believed. On 27 July 2021, the Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced a special task force led by the Malaysian Medical Association and the Health Ministry to study amending the Pension Act towards converting pensions to EPF contributions. If successful, this would make the prospect of offering permanent positions to contract doctors much more affordable to government coffers.

At the same time, the employment classification for government contract workers also needs to be redefined and updated. Employment classifications should reflect the nature of the job and the level of worker autonomy, which we have written about as part of our exploration of fair work principles. An ‘independent contract worker’ should have significantly higher levels of job autonomy and flexibility than a full-time employee. If the government intends to maintain hiring via contracts (while streamlining permanent workers’ entitlements), then the government should at least reclassify contract workers without much working hour flexibility or job autonomy to be ‘dependent contractors, qualifying for commensurate pay and other benefits.

It must be said however that the measures above would still not be able to answer contract junior doctors’ demands for a permanent government job when there is a major differential between the supply of medical graduates and the number of available positions in the public sector. Greater coordination and transparency between the government and medical schools could help to manage the gap between supply and demand. Allowing placements in private hospitals could also alleviate the burden on the government in providing training opportunities

Email us your views or suggestions at editorial@centre.my

Managing Online Hate Speech In Malaysia Requires Detecting It

The Atlanta shooting that killed six Asian women earlier this year took place on the back of rising anti-Asian online content in the US. Hateful slurs blaming Asians for the outbreak of COVID-19, along with degrading caricatures and memes of the community, had reportedly surged in far-right social media forums in the months leading up to the attack. 

Online hate speech or hateful content has become a major concern in societies around the world. There is a growing trend where audiences convene around such content in online spaces, and develop or strengthen biases against other groups. The risks of online hate speech leading to violence has been well researched, but there are also broader risks to inter-group trust and cohesion.

Elsewhere, some progress.

There is now more attention than ever among governments and civil societies on finding ways to counter hate speech. At the time of writing, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had just issued a warning to social media giants to remove racial abuse from their platforms or face steep fines. 

Driven by dramatic events, hate speech detection and removal became an urgent issue for social media companies relatively recently, with more companies implementing changes to relevant policies and targeted actions. Facebook and Twitter, for example, updated policies to describe the varying severities of hate speech disallowed on their respective platforms. These companies, alongside Snapchat, have also imposed sanctions against Donald Trump for his role in inciting the Capitol Hill riot

We laud these developments. For Malaysia, we have also argued for an effective response to hateful content, backed by a localised understanding of what constitutes hate speech in our society’s context. Following a pioneering study which we published last year, we also proposed a cohesive framework for defining, categorising and responding to the range of hate speech intensity in the country.

But how do we define, categorise and respond to something that we do not gather? Efforts to manage online hateful content of varying seriousness needs to start with consistent detection of its trends on social media, which can then feed into further work on determining its seriousness, impact and appropriate response.

From humans to machines… gradually

Detecting online hate speech is usually a labour-intensive endeavour, relying on human moderators – whether volunteers or paid workers – to process and filter large volumes of online content. There are obvious issues with this, not least the sheer volume of new online content generated on a daily basis. Relying on human moderators also requires investment in a sufficiently diverse team of humans with local knowledge, which not many companies or regulators would be willing to do. Moreover, as their job involves reviewing unsavoury content, moderation can be a distressing experience for human moderators. 

To overcome those issues, and with COVID-19 sweeping across the world*, social media platforms have been looking into increasing automation in moderation processes. Last year, Facebook and YouTube moved towards prioritising AI over human moderation, but there are some challenges to iron out.

*Human moderators, whose work is normally carried out within company facilities due to the sensitive nature of the content that they monitor, were sent home as a result of the pandemic, forcing the tech giants to rely instead on algorithms.

The AI models are, as yet, far from perfect. In a study by the University of Oxford and the Alan Turing Institute published last month, some systems were found to be overly lenient (failing to detect variations of hate speech), while others were overly tough (detecting non-hateful posts mentioning hateful words). 

These issues stem from the different ways an AI model is trained to detect hateful content. One approach is by training a machine learning model with given keywords and/or simple templates of expressions before applying it to online content. Some systems that were trained with only keywords would inevitably disregard the intricacies of language. Many expressions may not be inherently offensive, but can be so in the right context and phrasing. And of course, the keywords and templates put together in the training set for the AI are also limited by the diversity of the humans behind its design.

Current AI-driven detection, therefore, still comes with problems and there will still be a role for human moderators. It is crucial to work on improving AI models though since relying on human moderation on its own will not be effective, efficient or even humane. Continued improvement of automated online hate speech detection will require not only better technology but also better design. 

A Malaysia-based online hate detection initiative

For an effective partnership between AI and humans, the quality of data being fed into AI is important; when the AI is trained with local contexts, language, and dialect, it can identify or detect hate speech more accurately. Certain organisations that offer detection services for others have been doing this; PeaceTech Lab and Hatebase, for example, rely on NGOs and experts to detect what is considered potentially dangerous in local contexts though the work is prioritised on conflict zones.

There has yet to be any large-scale hate speech detection initiative in Malaysia, a country where highly racial and religious views at varying levels of hate are rife. In cases where hate speech occurs, the burden either falls on victims to escalate their concerns, or on authorities to interpret punitive legislation with overly-broad definitions of hate speech. 

Building on our research last year, The Centre is working on a hate speech detection initiative in Malaysia by pairing AI with human moderators who are familiar with the local context. This initiative, a proof-of-concept hate speech tracker, will act as a repository of trends and themes for online hateful content in the country. 

The tracker will become a useful resource centre for the general public and policymakers. For the public, it may serve as a means to better understand the degree and nature of intergroup tensions. For policymakers, it may be useful as a means to monitor how terms and themes that are potentially dangerous towards groups of people evolve. This could help policymakers identify more effective mechanisms to manage online hate speech and update current policy responses. 

Detecting online hate speech, however, should not come at the expense of free speech. Critics of online content moderation have rightfully pointed out that efforts to manage hate speech can potentially be abused to silence dissenting views. Some hate speech monitoring organisations have tried to address this concern. Hatebase, for instance, tracks hate speech trends but at the same time is against government censorship of speech except for clear incitement to violence. 

As an organisation, we also value the importance of upholding free speech in Malaysia while balancing it with the responsibilities of living in a multiracial society. To uphold this principle, content identified as hateful would need to meet a published threshold of harm or seriousness before getting flagged, a topic which we researched last year by gathering Malaysians’ perceptions on various speech samples’ intensity. We will also not be signposting or showcasing individual tweets, but only present trends and themes.

Detect, analyse, mitigate

There has yet to be a perfect tool or system that can reliably detect online hate speech in the world. Initiatives to detect online hate speech need to be complemented with continuous learning of local context to catch up with the ever-evolving social, cultural and political environment. 

And yes, detecting online hate speech is only the first step. Understanding the root causes of different forms of hate in a society is also vital in managing potential inter-group conflict. With detection and better understanding, appropriate action can be taken to mitigate the impact of hate speech in various spheres of society — be it in chat groups, comment sections, or real-life conversations between people.

Penularan COVID-19 dalam Penjara yang Sesak dan Peranan Undang-Undang Dadah di Malaysia

Daripada enam penjara di Malaysia yang dilanda wabak Covid-19 Oktober tahun lalu, empat telah didapati beroperasi dengan kapasiti berlebihan. Sehingga 3 November 2020, penjara-penjara di Malaysia dilaporkan menampung lebih dari 40% daripada kapasiti yang disyorkan, iaitu 46,420 orang. Beberapa penjara berada dalam situasi yang genting. Penjara Alor Setar, misalnya, telah dilaporkan beroperasi dengan kapasiti dua kali ganda.

Wabak COVID-19 telah mendedahkan pelbagai permasalahan jangka panjang dalam masyarakat, termasuk isu kesesakan di dalam penjara-penjara kita. Penularan virus ini di dalam penjara, yang telah digambarkan ibarat bom jangka (ticking timebombs) oleh Ahli Parlimen Permatang Pauh, Nurul Izzah, telah membawa kepada pengetahuan umum dua lagi isu yang berkaitan: penjara-penjara kita berada dalam keadaan tidak sanitari dan usang

* Sebelum ini kami telah menulis mengenai kesan kesesakan tempat tinggal kepada pekerja asing di Malaysia, yang boleh dibaca di sini.

Untuk mengawal kluster COVID-19 di dalam penjara, Kementerian Dalam Negeri (KDN) telah mengumumkan pada 15 Disember 2020 bahawa 10,000 penghuni telah dihantar ke pusat pemulihan manakala 11,000 pendatang tanpa izin akan dihantar pulang ke negara asal tahun ini. Isu ini juga telah menarik perhatian Parlimen. Akhir tahun lepas, Kumpulan Rentas Parti Parlimen Malaysia Mengenai Reformasi Penjara Dan Tempat Tahanan Awam (KRPPM), satu usaha bersama antara Dewan Rakyat dan Dewan Negara, telah dibentuk khusus untuk menangani isu kesesakan penjara.

Kesesakan penjara ialah suatu isu yang rumit dan merangkumi pelbagai aspek. KRPPM dan KDN dijangka akan meneliti pelbagai jalan penyelesaian, termasuk peruntukan tambahan untuk membaik pulih infrastruktur penjara. Walau bagaimanapun, kita harus berwaspada jika ada kemahuan dalam kalangan penggubal dasar untuk menambah bilangan penjara sebagai solusi. Sebaliknya, cadangan kami ialah supaya pihak penggubal dasar menyelesaikan satu isu yang mendesak dan sangat relevan, iaitu hukuman keterlaluan bagi kesalahan kecil berkaitan dadah yang telah menjadi penyumbang besar kepada kesesakan penjara.

Perlukah penjara disesakkan dengan pesalah kecil?

Pakar-pakar kesihatan awam telah memberi amaran mengenai risiko yang boleh ditimbulkan oleh COVID-19 dan penjara yang sesak. Menurut Sandra Chu, Pengarah Penyelidikan Research and Advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, pemenjaraan pesalah bagi dakwaan memiliki kuantiti dadah yang kecil akan mencetuskan bahaya dalam musim pandemik. Atas kebimbangan ini, Dainius Pūras, seorang Pelapor Khas (Special Rapporteur) Pertubuhan Bangsa-Bangsa Bersatu (PBB), telah mencadangkan tindakan sejauh penguatkuasaan moratorium pelaksanaan undang-undang yang menjenayahkan penggunaan dan pemilikan dadah bagi mengurangkan risiko penularan COVID-19.

Situasi di Malaysia, di mana wujud populasi penjara yang tinggi, menyokong kebimbangan di atas. Populasi pesalah dadah yang ramai di penjara juga bukanlah suatu perkara yang baharu dan memeranjatkan. Hal ini disebabkan oleh undang-undang dadah yang keras di Malaysia. Dianggarkan dua pertiga tahanan di penjara Malaysia adalah mereka yang disabitkan atas kesalahan berkaitan dadah.

Pada masa ini, pesalah dadah yang dipenjarakan merangkumi pelbagai kumpulan, dari pengedar, hingga individu yang disabitkan kerana memiliki dadah, hingga mereka yang kebetulan didapati positif dadah dalam ujian air kencing. Pakar psikiatri Dr Sivakumar Thurairajasingam apabila di temubual oleh CodeBlue menyatakan bahawa pegawai perubatan awam akan dengan segera menganggap suspek pengguna dadah sebagai seseorang yang ‘bergantung’ kepada dadah jika keputusan ujiannya positif, walaupun itu adalah kali pertama suspek tersebut mencuba bahan narkotik. Hal ini menunjukkan bahawa pada masa ini ianya agak mudah untuk seseorang disabitkan kesalahan berkaitan dadah. Kesalahan memiliki dadah tidak tegar seperti ganja dalam kuantiti yang kecil juga boleh menyebabkan seseorang dihantar ke penjara.

Hukuman untuk kesalahan kecil berkaitan dadah di Malaysia

Pemilikan dadah:
Di bawah Akta Dadah Berbahaya, seseorang yang didapati memiliki kuantiti dadah di bawah 5-gram biji popi atau ganja boleh dikenakan hukuman penjara hingga 5 tahun atau denda maksimum RM20,000, atau kedua-duanya sekali.

Penggunaan dadah: Terdapat dua undang-undang pada masa ini memperuntukkan hukuman bagi penggunaan dadah, iaitu Akta Dadah Berbahaya dan Akta Penagih Dadah (Rawatan dan Pemulihan). Di bawah Akta Dadah Berbahaya, pengguna dadah dikenakan denda maksimum RM5,000 dan hukuman penjara hingga dua tahun, sementara di bawah Akta Penagih Dadah (Rawatan dan Pemulihan), pengguna dadah dikenakan pemulihan wajib serta pengawasan untuk empat tahun.

Menurut Seksyen 38 (B) Akta Dadah Berbahaya, pengguna dadah terlebih dahulu harus menjalani hukuman di bawah Seksyen 15 akta yang sama, sebelum menjalani pengawasan di bawah Akta Penagih Dadah (Rawatan dan Pemulihan).

Penularan wabak COVID-19 di penjara nampaknya telah mendesak pihak berkuasa mengambil tindakan untuk membetulkan masalah pemenjaraan berlebihan pesalah dadah di Malaysia. Jabatan Penjara telah menyusun langkah-langkah mitigasi termasuk memindahkan 2,800 pesalah kecil berkaitan dadah ke fasiliti sementara, dan telah memohon supaya yang lain ditempatkan di perimeter penjara agar mereka dapat dipulihkan, atau direhabilitasi.

Langkah-langkah ini jelas adalah solusi yang sementara. Selain daripada pemindahan tahanan ke kemudahan sementara secara ad hoc, apa yang diperlukan adalah kaedah untuk menangani kesesakan penjara yang lebih tersusun. Penyelesaian yang lebih mantap dan berteraskan objektif jangka panjang adalah diperlukan untuk pesalah jenayah kecil, terutamanya yang berkaitan dadah. Harus diingatkan di sini bahawa kira-kira dua pertiga dari populasi penjara di Malaysia sekarang terdiri dari pesalah dadah. Untuk ilustrasi, jika kita menganggap hanya separuh daripada jumlah itu terdiri daripada pesalah kecil berkaitan dadah (jumlahnya mungkin lebih tinggi; pada tahun 2017, 56% banduan dilaporkan dipenjara kerana kesalahan ini), dengan hanya menyingkirkan bahagian tersebut kita boleh mengurangkan kepadatan penghuni di empat buah penjara yang telah menjadi kluster penularan wabak COVID-19 seperti yang digambarkan dibawah:

Sumber: Jawapan Parlimen oleh Menteri Dalam Negeri pada 17 Jun 2019; Kenyataan Media oleh Ketua Pengarah Penjara Malaysia pada 6 Oktober 2020. Pengiraan mudah oleh The Centre. Populasi Penjara di Malaysia sehingga Jun 2019.

Perjalanan yang panjang ke arah sistem pemulihan

Rasional dan keberkesanan undang-undang dadah Malaysia telah mula dipersoalkan, terutamanya untuk kesalahan kecil. Sebelum pandemik COVID-19 melanda setiap pelusuk dunia, telah pun wujud permintaan untuk mengkaji undang-undang dadah Malaysia dan mengambil pendekatan berasaskan rawatan dan rehabilitasi terhadap penagihan dadah. Tokoh-tokoh terkenal, termasuk pakar penyakit berjangkit Prof Dato’ Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Ketua Program Pemulihan Ketagihan Dadah Spiritual (SEDAR) Dr Rusdi bin Abdul Rashid, dan Pengarah Pusat Penyelidikan Dadah Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Prof Dr Vicknasingam Kasinather telah lama menyokong langkah untuk merawat secara perubatan dan merehabilitasi pengguna dadah di Malaysia.

Sementara itu, usaha ke arah reformasi dasar dan undang-undang berkaitan dadah telah mengambil masa yang panjang. Pada tahun 2017, Menteri di Jabatan Perdana Menteri ketika itu, YB Datuk Seri Azalina Othman telah mencadangkan buat pertama kali supaya satu kajian dijalankan untuk menilai semula hukuman-hukuman dadah berdasarkan tahap keseriusan pemilikan dan pengedaran. Pada tahun 2019, sebuah jawatankuasa khas yang terdiri daripada Kementerian Kesihatan (KKM), Kementerian Belia dan Sukan (KBS) serta Agensi Anti Dadah Kebangsaan (AADK) telah ditubuhkan dan dilaporkan telah bersetuju untuk mengusahakan langkah-langkah ke arah meringankan hukuman jenayah terhadap pesalah kecil dadah.

Baru-baru ini, kerajaan Perikatan Nasional dikatakan telah mencadangkan undang-undang baru untuk menggantikan Akta Penagih Dadah (Rawatan dan Pemulihan) menjelang akhir tahun ini. Undang-undang baharu ini dirancang untuk memperuntukkan penempatan pengguna dadah dalam program rehabilitasi dan rawatan tanpa pemenjaraan. Walau bagaimanapun, penggunaan dadah masih ditadbir di bawah bidang kuasa Akta Dadah Berbahaya dan sehingga peruntukan yang relevan di bawah Akta ini dipinda, keberkesanan undang-undang baharu ini akan menjadi tanda tanya.

Tambahan pula dan perkara yang paling utama, isu kesalahan pemilikan dadah dalam kuantiti kecil masih belum selesai. Hukuman yang tidak seimbang dan penjara yang sesak mungkin akan terus berkekalan sehingga hal ini dapat diselesaikan.

Dekriminalisasi Dadah merujuk kepada penghapusan tuduhan dan hukuman jenayah seperti hukuman penjara kerana memiliki dan/atau menggunakan bahan narkotik dalam jumlah yang kecil.

Konsep ini telah mendapat sokongan yang kuat dan juga kritikan. Aktivis seperti Malaysian Drug Policy Reform Alliance menyokongnya dan telah memetik kajian tempatan yang menunjukkan perbandingan kos dan keberkesanan penjara berbanding pemulihan dadah. Pihak lain pula, seperti mantan Ketua Polis Negara Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hassan dan peguam jenayah, Datuk Rosal Azimin Ahmad berpendapat bahawa langkah ini akan mendorong penggunaan dadah dan membebankan penguatkuasa undang-undang.

Adakah COVID-19 akan mengubah pendekatan kita?

Pandemik ini telah menjadi peringatan kepada kita tentang satu isu yang telah lama berlegar tetapi selalu dilupakan. Reformasi undang-undang dadah amat diperlukan, bukan hanya kerana kesesakan di penjara, tetapi juga atas sebab yang lebih mudah: keberkesanan undang-undang tersebut. Antara lain, dasar-dasar berkaitan dadah yang progresif terbukti telah dapat meringankan beban sistem keadilan jenayah dan mengurangkan penggunaan dadah. Sebagai contoh, di negara Portugal, setelah pelaksanaan dekriminalisasi dadah pada tahun 2001, kes-kes overdos dadah, jangkitan HIV, dan jenayah yang berkaitan dengan dadah telah dilaporkan menurun. Manfaat serupa juga dilihat di Switzerland; hampir tiga dekad setelah dekriminalisasi dadah, negara tersebut mencatatkan penurunan pengguna heroin baharu sebanyak 80%.

Sejumlah sistem perundangan lain di serata dunia juga telah mula bergerak ke arah penggubalan dasar dadah yang lebih progresif. Contohnya, dekriminalisasi ke atas semua jenis dadah telah dilaksanakan di negeri Oregon di Amerika Syarikat pada akhir tahun lalu. Australia telah memperkenalkan draf rang undang-undang pada Disember tahun lalu untuk menghapuskan hukuman ke atas pemilikan dadah untuk penggunaan peribadi. Pihak yang menyokong telah menyambut baik rang undang-undang tersebut dan menyatakan bahawa pengguna dadah akan mendapat akses kepada penjagaan kesihatan yang lebih baik sambil mengurangkan tekanan pada sistem keadilan jenayah di Australia.

Ketika Malaysia memerangi penularan wabak COVID-19, amatlah penting untuk kita merancang secara lebih konkrit untuk meminda undang-undang dadah yang bersifat punitif ke arah satu pendekatan yang yang mengutamakan rehabilitasi. Sistem rehabilitasi tidak hanya akan dapat meringankan jumlah pesalah dadah yang tinggi di penjara, tetapi juga akan melahirkan kaedah yang lebih berkesan untuk menangani isu kebergantungan dadah di negara kita.

Malaysia’s Migrant Worker Recruitment Process

Since 2005, many Malaysian companies do not directly hire migrant workers. Instead, migrant workers are employed by recruitment agencies, which in turn outsource them to the companies.

This outsourcing practice was institutionalised through a 2012 amendment of the Employment Act 1955. Under this system, work permits are attached to the recruitment agents, or “contractors for labour”, instead of the companies which the migrant workers are outsourced to. Companies prefer this arrangement as workers who are not direct employees would not be subject to collective bargaining agreements and can be hired for specific periods of time and be sent back to the recruitment agencies once their services are no longer needed. The system has also distanced the companies from any liability towards the workers.

Critics have highlighted how the system has brought back labour practices that are reminiscent of those from the British colonial era, which deprived workers of their basic rights. Many of the workers have found themselves in debt bondage from having paid high recruitment fees to the agencies. They have also been subjected to numerous forms of mistreatments, including the withholding of passports by employers, and exposure to poor working conditions.

Who and what is involved in the recruitment process?

To hire foreign workers, the company first needs to obtain a letter from the Ministry of Human Resources’ (MOHR) Jabatan Tenaga Kerja Semenanjung Malaysia (JTKSM) confirming that they are not able to hire Malaysian workers.*

Part of the process involves putting up a job posting on the JobsMalaysia online portal (replaced by MYFutureJobs on 1 November 2020) to advertise available vacancies to local workers. For several years there was no fixed time period for advertising on JobsMalaysia in order to determine that no Malaysians can fill the vacancies. Companies treated the requirement as a formality and would proceed to apply for foreign workers via MOHR’s Sistem Permohonan Pekerja Asing (or ePPAx) right after posting the vacancies on JobsMalaysia. In June 2020, however, a 30-day mandatory posting period was added through a cabinet decision.

* The approver for Sabah is the Sabah State Labour Department and the Committee for Foreign Workers in Sabah and Labuan, and for Sarawak is the Sarawak State Labour Department.

With the letter from JTKSM, the company can apply for a foreign worker quota from MOHR. The Ministry will approve the application if the company meets the relevant criteria.

This quota is a company-specific quota for a certain position that was posted on  JobsMalaysia which Malaysians could not fill. The job posting allows the company to apply for a certain number of foreign workers for the position. This is the first among two quotas that the company needs to apply for, the second being the one issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA). The quotas can also be applied for through a recruitment agency, who may act on behalf of the company throughout the recruitment process.

Once the company has obtained the approval from MOHR, it can apply to MOHA for the Ministry’s foreign worker quota. This is typically an online process via the Foreign Workers Centralized Management System (FWCMS). Once the quota is approved, the company needs to pay the workers’ levy*, the relevant insurance policies, and a security bond.

Quota allocation is determined by MOHA based on a list of approved “source countries” and specific industries in which workers from those countries are allowed to work. Quotas are determined by arbitrary guesstimates based on different industry guidelines. For example, for the plantation sector, guidelines from the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities may indicate 1 foreign worker for every 8 hectares of palm oil plantation, while for the construction sector, guidelines from the Construction Industry Development Board indicate 1 foreign worker for every 3 Malaysians. Meanwhile, in the services sector, 5-star hotels are allowed to hire 1 foreign worker per 12 rooms, while 1-star hotels can hire 1 foreign worker per 30 rooms.

* Introduced in 1992 with multiple increases since, levies were originally imposed on migrant workers in order to cover their use of public services and infrastructures. The levies yielded approximately RM1.75bn to RM2.75bn to the government annually between 2005 to 2014.

Once the relevant quotas have been approved, the company can begin recruiting. However, this is not an easy process. For companies that require the services of a large number of workers, it is logistically challenging and uneconomical for them to internalise the recruitment process. They will instead enter into a contractual agreement with the recruitment outsourcing agency, which will not only help find the migrant worker candidates from the source country, but which will also become the workers’ direct employers. 

To find the worker candidates, the outsourcing agencies typically engage the services of agents that are based in the targeted countries. Upon receiving a request from the destination country, the agents, however, may find it difficult to locate prospective migrants from remote areas and villages; they also charge an upfront recruitment fee and will need to find people who would be willing to pay the fee in order to get hired. To facilitate the process, the agents rely on informal sub-agents to act as intermediaries between them and the prospective workers.

The informal sub-agents assist in the process by vouching for the recruiters and convincing the prospective migrants to migrate. They also assist in the paperwork, passport application, bank account opening, medical check-up, and transportation to the airport for the would-be migrant workers. In some cases they even act as guarantors for the workers who require credit. Many intermediaries are in fact returnee migrants or relatives of prospective migrants who are familiar with the procedures and challenges of migration. This stage of the recruitment process can prove to be costly for the worker, as we will discuss further below. 

Once the services of the workers are secured, the outsourcing agency applies for a Visa With Reference (VDR) at the Malaysian Embassy in the source country so the workers can travel to Malaysia. Upon arrival in Malaysia, the workers have 30 days to undergo a medical checkup by the Foreign Workers’ Medical Examination Monitoring Agency (FOMEMA) Sdn Bhd. 

The medical checkup is usually arranged by the employer. Once the workers have obtained the medical clearance, the employer can then apply for an employment pass called the Visitor Pass (Temporary Employment), or VP(TE). After receiving the VP(TE) the workers can begin their employment in Malaysia. 

Despite this being the formal process, employers can also bypass it through Special Approvals (Kelulusan Khas) from the Ministry of Home Affairs through ministerial approval and ‘intermediaries’. Between 2016 and 2018, a quota totalling 512,315 was approved by MOHA or through special committees, instead of going through JobsMalaysia, which approved 416,510 foreign workers over the same period. Through Special Approvals, 22,901 foreign workers were allowed to work in Malaysian-only sectors and of the 7,784 employers granted Special Approvals, only 1,036 advertised the jobs on JobsMalaysia. 

The employer is also legally liable if the migrant workers abscond and become illegal. Abscondment is reported as the second largest challenge that employers face in dealing with migrant workers, after communication problems. In the event of abscondment, in order to cancel the VP(TE), the employer will need to submit documentation to the Malaysian Immigration Department which includes the foreign workers’ passports

In order to mitigate the risk of abscondment, the passports (and the VP(TE) inside) are often held by the recruitment agency or company, even if the government has made it clear that this an offence under the Passport Act 1966. There have also been reports of employers attempting to compromise by storing passports on premise with the workers keeping the key, in response to pressures from multinational companies. 

The status of recruitment agencies through the years

The legality of recruitment agencies in Malaysia has been subject to numerous policy U-turns. They were first legalised in 1981 through the Private Employment Agencies Act. Due to exploitation, indenture, corruption and fraud, they were subsequently banned in 1995 and were replaced by a Special Task Force on Foreign Labour under the Ministry of Home Affairs as the sole agency responsible for foreign labour recruitment. This signalled a shift to the implementation of a Government to Government (G2G) model*, which centralised foreign worker recruitment in Malaysia. 

Recruitment agencies were re-legalised in 2005 through an amendment to the Private Employment Agencies Act, as lawmakers found that the ban did not solve the problem as foreign workers and employers continued to use the agencies. Moreover, the ban also made it difficult to control unregulated private agencies. This move also enabled outsourcing to be practiced in the recruitment process. From 2010 onwards, however, the government phased out outsourcing firms and reverted to the G2G model. This policy shifted again in 2012 as a result of the amendment of the Employment Act 1955, through which the concept of “contractor for labour” was invented. 

During its tenure, the Pakatan Harapan government announced that outsourcing agencies would be abolished by March 2019 and companies would need to absorb the workers who they employed via the agencies. Whether or not the policy is still in place, however, is not clear. At present, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Perikatan Nasional government has introduced a freeze on the hiring of foreign workers.

* G2G agreements and MOUs between Malaysia and the source country are usually signed in order to cut out the exorbitant fees charged by recruitment agents from the hiring process.

The cost of working abroad for a migrant worker in Malaysia

For a migrant worker to come and work in Malaysia, a hefty amount needs to be paid. Recruitment agencies and sub-agents may charge each worker an upfront recruitment fee  that can be multiples of the actual cost of the expenses it is meant to cover. A large proportion of the workers end up having to sell land or property or take on debt to finance the migration at usurious rates.

Alternatively, recruitment agencies may bear the cost of recruitment, but often recoup the outlay through salary deductions once the workers have been outsourced to other companies. These fees are only meant to be paid once; however, researchers have found that some agents in the source countries double-dip, claiming the same expenses from both the worker and the employer in Malaysia. 

Many migrant workers become indentured as a result of this. If a worker comes to Malaysia to work for an average salary of RM1,000 a month, the indenture would be worth 20 months wages in the case of a Bangladeshi, 5-6 months for a Nepali, and 2-3 months for an Indonesian. For Nepalis and Indonesians, there is some semblance of financial viability with extreme scrimping. However, the reality is that Indonesian maids have reported needing to pay 6-10 months of their wages to recruitment agencies. For Bangladeshis, the payback is gravely uncertain because the VP(TE) is only issued for 12 months with a possibility of additional 12-month extensions for up to 10 years, which are not guaranteed. Taking into account living costs, interest on the loan, potential employer salary deductions and a reasonable profit, there is a built-in assumption that Bangladeshi migrant workers will need to work in Malaysia continuously for several years, whether legally or otherwise, before seeing any semblance of a financial return. 

The Case For A Fair Work Act, Part 2

Rapid digital transformation has changed the power relationship between employers* and workers, creating new employment categories in its wake and eroding the relevance of current labour laws. Building on the Oxford Internet Institute’s Fair Work Initiative as well as global research efforts to classify today’s workers, Part 1 of our research series argued for updating Malaysia’s employment categories in order to reflect today’s inherent power relationships, and to outline what is owed to workers of each category.

*Note: The term ‘employer’ is used broadly throughout this piece, representing the party that either employs the worker or is the intermediary for the supply of jobs.

In this Part 2 of the research series, we focus on a major pillar of Fair Work as per the Oxford Internet Institute, namely fair pay. What does fair pay mean in the context of a law describing Fair Work in Malaysia? And how would it apply to the different power relationships between employers and workers that we see today?


Economic fairness vs. moral fairness?

In 1965, shortly before the United States government adopted the first federal definition of the poverty line, one of its policy drafters Mollie Orshansky wrote: “There is not, and indeed in a rapidly changing pluralistic society there cannot be, one standard universally accepted and uniformly applicable by which it can be decided who is poor. … If it is not possible to state unequivocally ‘how much is enough,’ it should be possible to assert with confidence how much, on an average, is too little.”

The term ‘fair pay’ usually suggests an equitable level of compensation for a specific job. Going by this framing, the basis of fair pay becomes founded on the idea of that job’s value contribution to a good or service. This primarily economic idea of fairness leads to policies emphasising the linkage of wages to productivity, which assumes that low wages can be increased or avoided if the job’s productivity is calculated and if the job is made more value-adding. 

While the concept of productivity-linked wages appears principled, in reality, it is tested by the challenge of measurement. An assembly line worker’s output can be measured by units assembled per hour but how much is the productivity and value contribution of a cleaner and what is the commensurate level of compensation for that job? What about for a security guard?

The question of fair pay by occupation, sector, paper qualification or productivity calculation has its place in policy discussions and in union negotiations, but we argue that it is not the core problem in question for this piece. 

Instead, the idea of fair pay in the context of fair work legislation is primarily one of moral judgement. Going back to Mollie Orshansky above, it is about asserting with confidence how much is too little, i.e. how much is a societally acceptable level of compensation for working a customary number of hours a month, regardless of the job performed? How much is the amount, where coming below the said figure would be considered humanly exploitative and warranting of legal penalties? Going by this framing of the issue, the basis of fair pay becomes founded on the idea of a minimum living wage and non-wage benefits – i.e. how much is the minimum needed to live on.

As will be argued, the gap between this idea and what is currently practised underpins the need for a revised conception and administration of fair pay in Malaysia.


Of formulas and consultations

Historically, governments have established a minimum income floor by enacting minimum wage laws. Along with the statutory wage laws, each country has a regulatory infrastructure or process by which to revise the minimum wage periodically. Figure 1 below shows a brief cross-country comparison of minimum wage regimes.

Figure 1: Selected Cross-Country Comparison of Minimum Wage Regime

Sources:
Malaysia – Minimum Wages Order 2020; National Wages Consultative Act 2011
China – Employment Law Overview China 2019 – 2020 by L&E Global
United Kingdom – UK’s National Minimum Wage Act 1998
Australia – Australia’s Fair Work Act 2009

As stated in Figure 1, countries’ minimum wage regimes differ in several key respects such as coverage. The minimum wage may not cover all workers and can exclude or be silent on coverage for informal or self-employed workers. Many governments set minimum wages federally or nationally, though countries like China favour local government setting of minimum wages. In many countries, final authority to decide on the minimum wage resides within the responsible ministry or government department, whereas some like Australia have established a commission by law to set the minimum wage. Revisions to the minimum wage level appear based on a combination of formula, research and stakeholder consultation, though the level of transparency on each of these varies from country to country.

In Malaysia, the advent of the minimum wage is a fairly recent phenomenon – the first minimum wage was enforced in 2012. Before that, wage levels were regulated by the Industrial Relations Act 1967 and the Wages Councils Act 1947, where wage rates were determined through collective bargaining for unionised workers and work councils for non-unionised workers.

When a key 2009 study found that over one-third of private sector workers earned less than the national poverty line, the government resolved to set up the National Wages Consultative Council (NWCC) via the National Wages Consultative Council Act 2011 to develop and advise on the national minimum wage. One year after the founding of NWCC, the government implemented the first minimum wage via the Minimum Wages Order 2012 with the announced aim of helping to eradicate poverty and ensure workers can meet the rising costs of living.

The National Wages Consultative Council (NWCC) is a tripartite working group set up to study all matters concerning minimum wages and to give recommendations to the government for making or revising the Minimum Wages Orders according to the sector, type of employment and regional area.

According to the NWCC Act 2011, the council shall consist of the following members who shall be appointed by the Minister of Human Resources:

1. A Chairman
2. A Deputy Chairman
3. A Secretary
4. At least 5 public officers from the Ministry of Finance, the Public Service Department, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Economic Planning Unit
5. At least 5 members representing employees
6. At least 5 members representing employers
7. At least 5 members representing independent members

Source: International Labour Organisation (2018)

The first minimum wage level was set at RM900 a month for West Malaysia and RM800 a month for East Malaysia. Any employer who fails to comply with the minimum wage law can be punished by paying the worker the sum owed as well as a potential fine of not more than RM500 per offence. Editor’s note: A low amount on the surface, in comparison to other fines in Malaysia’s statutes.

Since 2012, the government has increased the minimum wage level to RM1,200 a month for 56 cities and municipal council areas and RM1,100 a month for other areas. Despite these revisions, experts and worker unions still think the current amount is too low to live on adequately. In partial response, the former Human Resources Minister had said in 2019 that the government was considering a sectoral-based minimum wage, which is where the question of minimum wage setting still stands today, after the change in government and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Non-wage financial benefits* in Malaysia are covered by social security acts mandating employers to protect their employees against future financial risks, the key ones being employer monetary contributions to employees’ retirement savings and unemployment insurance. Today, the Employee Provident Fund (EPF) Act 1991 requires all employers to contribute 11-12% of their employees’ base salaries for retirement savings while the Employment Insurance System (EIS) Act 2017 requires employers to contribute a set amount into a national unemployment insurance program for full-time employees. Although informal workers are not eligible for any employer contributions for EPF or EIS, they are allowed to contribute into the self-employed versions of these schemes voluntarily, and on their own initiative.

*Note: Social protection schemes relating to workplace safety and accidents like SOCSO, and reskilling like HRDF, will be discussed in our next article on ‘fair conditions’.

To date, there is no law in Malaysia mandating employers to contribute to workers’ healthcare insurance; provision of private healthcare insurance by companies is mostly due to market norms. To a large extent, the mandating of healthcare insurance by law is driven by the characteristics of a country’s healthcare system. Countries such as Singapore, Thailand and China mandate eligible employers to contribute into a national healthcare insurance scheme for every eligible worker (much like our EPF scheme) while countries like the USA mandate eligible employers to provide company-sponsored health insurance or subsidise their employees’ private health insurance premiums.


What are the current gaps?

Although Malaysia has a legal framework to govern workers’ wages and benefits, there are key gaps in definition and administration that put us some way from achieving the notion of ‘fair pay’. Given the significant role of the minimum wage laws in achieving ‘fair pay’ in Malaysia, this piece focuses on the limitations of the current wage framework and reserves discussion on non-wage compensation such as retirement contributions in future related pieces.


Vague rationale for minimum wage

Currently, Malaysia’s minimum wage levels are determined through a combination of formula application and stakeholder consultation. The NWCC’s website states that the setting of the minimum wage rates are based on factors affecting workers’ ability to make ends meet, such as the national poverty line, the median income, productivity growth, inflation and the unemployment rate. A technical committee under the NWCC conducts calculations, industry sensitivity tests and consultations with stakeholders, after which proposed options for the minimum wage are debated amongst members of the NWCC. The agreed upon minimum wage range is then proposed to the Minister of Human Resources and the Cabinet for the government’s decision. 

It is unclear whether the core basis of the minimum wage is driven by the question of the minimum needed to live in today’s society, or by the question of what industry can or is prepared to bear. The NWCC website states two potentially competing aims of ensuring employees are able to meet basic needs as well as providing a conducive environment for industrial production. 

The current formula suggests that Malaysia’s minimum wage setting takes into consideration the national poverty line, median income, inflation rate, unemployment rate and productivity growth. However, as mentioned above, experts and worker unions still think the current minimum wage is too low to live on adequately. The significant difference between the current minimum wage (RM1,200 for Kuala Lumpur & major cities) and estimates for the real living wage (BNM’s RM2,700 for Kuala Lumpur & major cities and SWRC’s reference budget of RM1,870 for an unmarried public transport user in Klang Valley) implies that either the formula needs improvement or that employer readiness plays a more significant role in deciding Malaysia’s national income floor.

Read our past primer on minimum wage vs. living wage.


Opaque review and decision-making process

While there are broad guidelines under the current framework, there is a lack of transparency in how the review of the minimum wage level is conducted and what factors drive decision-making. The recommendations of the NWCC, including its supporting calculations and information sources are not published for public comment or information. The deliberations on these recommendations and the rationale for the government’s final decision are also not published.


Increasingly outdated policy paradigm

As outlined in Part 1, the emerging trend of labour informalisation makes policy frameworks that revolve around formal full-time employment increasingly obsolete, including minimum wage laws. Even if the official minimum wage were to be sufficient to cover local costs of living, its enforcement would still be limited to full-time or part-time formal employees only – a declining employment category in an era of digitalisation and contract or ‘gig’ employment. To ensure that all workers who work a stipulated number of full-time or part-time hours receive the fair minimum pay, new employment categories would need to be established (such as dependent contractors) and would need to be thoughtfully integrated into current minimum wage laws.

Finally, the acute hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on low-waged income earners have shown how policy frameworks that focus on employer affordability are increasingly insufficient and siloed. Minimum wage policy needs to be compatible and consistent with a national policy on social safety nets. In this past year of COVID-19 we have seen the government implement both ad hoc measures such as wage subsidies as well as more established Bantuan Sara Hidup household cash transfers (or its pandemic-times name, Bantuan Prihatin Rakyat) to supplement low or interrupted incomes. This same approach should be a cornerstone of a long-term social safety net policy post-COVID, where minimum wages and non-wage financial contributions by employers plays the role it is intended to accomplish, in tandem with wage support, household income support and reskilling schemes by the government.


A clear, viable policy for fair pay

To reiterate, the core policy question on fair pay in the context of this piece is about determining the minimum amount owed to a worker for a specified (and conventional) number of hours worked. To close the gaps in doing so, we propose the following:


A societally acceptable level for the minimum wage

What is the purpose of a national minimum wage? If it is to ensure that workers can meet a minimum reasonable cost of living – which we argue is the foremost purpose – the minimum wage should be researched, calculated and set at the level of a minimum living wage for the locality. 

There will surely be debates around what is a societally acceptable definition of a minimum living wage and minimum living conditions but at the very least, Malaysians would be clear that the minimum wage, in principle and in law, is set at a level that does not come below the poverty threshold or other benchmarks of misery or exploitation. Future revisions of the minimum wage would be mostly reflective of changes in the consumption basket, inflation, and the level of local economic development.


A transparent review and decision-making process

Setting the minimum wage, even to the level of a living wage, will likely continue to be a negotiation between application of a formula as well as appeals from stakeholders. While we aspire to the level of independence in Australia’s minimum wage set-up, particularly in the autonomy of the Fair Work Commission, as a medium-term measure we advocate emulating the transparency of that same commission.

The details of the annual minimum wage review process and data sources should be made public including the formula or calculation for the minimum wage, any research papers commissioned to amend or update the formula, counter-proposals from stakeholders, proceedings from stakeholder engagement sessions, to name a few. Instead of closed-door discussions, we strongly advocate for these key information to be published and for the government to explain discrepancies between NWCC’s minimum wage proposals and the government’s final decision on the minimum wage. These pieces of information can then be constructively debated in Parliament by elected representatives (when Parliament reconvenes).


An updated policy paradigm of wages and social safety nets

With new forms of employment mushrooming in the fast-changing labour market, the eligibility criteria for earning a fair minimum wage and benefits should not only be limited to those in formal employment. As argued above, the minimum wage should apply to all worker categories, unless there are sectoral or practical obstacles barring its implementation (in which cases wage or income support kicks in).

In Part 1, we argued for the establishment of 3 major employment categories to reflect 3 major underlying power relationships: employees, dependent contractors and independent contractors. As per current laws, all formal employees who contribute full-time hours should earn a minimum living wage and have non-wage financial benefits such as employer contributions to EPF and EIS. 

For dependent contractors, we propose that those who work the equivalent of full-time hours should also earn incomes not less than the minimum living wage. Independent contractors meanwhile have the highest degree of job autonomy and control; workers in this category should have sufficient means and capacity to negotiate for rates and fees above the minimum living wage but for additional information and know-how support, should also be supported by collectives supporting independent contractors and solopreneurs.

Some countries have created a tiered minimum wage system to account for younger workers, apprenticeships, hours worked and other material circumstances.

In the United Kingdom, workers younger than 23 years old and workers in apprenticeship have separate minimum wage levels. Australia adopts a different approach by offering special provisions known as modern awards in addition to the statutory wage law to set sectoral/occupation-based minimum wage and employment conditions. To accommodate flexible working hours, some state governments in the United States have enabled those working full-time hours or more in a week to earn a premium payment on top of their minimum wage.


Anticipated Issues

At the time of writing, the debate* about raising the minimum wage to the living wage level is increasing across the world in the United States, Indonesia, and more. In Malaysia, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the struggles of many low-income Malaysians to make ends meet, exposing the inadequacy of our current minimum wage, both in amount and in coverage. While the government promises a review of the minimum wage, we argue that its definition, administration and policy paradigm needs to undergo a significant change.

*Note: Debate amongst economists on the effects of raising the minimum wage have come a long way from mostly negative to mixed, based on empirical evidence showing little impact to employment upon modest increases (paywall).

Implementing a local living wage as the minimum wage in one stroke will very likely not be possible or even advisable. The difference between the current minimum wage and the revised poverty line (not to mention various proposals of local living wage figures) is very large, and there will be serious and legitimate concerns regarding companies’ ability to pay, especially SMEs. Raising the minimum wage has to be done in stages. To further support the transition to a minimum living wage regime, the government may also institute sectoral exemptions to reflect the cost of living in specific working environments such as oil palm plantations, as well as targeted, temporary wage subsidies for qualifying companies with clear criteria.

Extending minimum wage coverage to all workers will also not be straightforward. One challenge is in determining numbers of hours worked for certain types of dependent contractors, for example gig platform workers. Should hours spent on the platform app be equated to hours worked or would this result in ‘gaming the system’? There is as yet no answer to this question, and many other practical nuts-and-bolts questions of implementation. But if ensuring fair pay for all workers, including informal workers, is something we consider not only societally acceptable but also societally important, we should ensure that the principle is agreed upon, and that time and effort are invested towards resolving the practical issues.

Beyond earning a living wage, what other factors constitute Fair Work? We take up fair working conditions and fair contracts in the next instalment of this research series.

Email us your views or suggestions at editorial@centre.my

A Year of Living Under COVID-19

In February this year, we began a study to assess the effects of the then year-long pandemic on Malaysians’ mental health. At the time, a second nation-wide lockdown had just been declared. Data for this mental health study was collected via online survey which reached nearly 1,000 respondents from across the country*.

*Respondents’ mental health was measured by their responses to the DASS-21 questionnaire. For more details on how the DASS-21 questionnaire was applied, respondent demographics and the study’s overall methodology, please refer to Part 1. Please note that this is not a nationally representative stratified sample.

A descriptive analysis of the data was published in three parts, each tackling a different aspect of the general deterioration experienced over the past year. Part 1 showed that over half of surveyed respondents experienced worsened mental health over the past year. Women and youths self-reported lower mental health levels compared to other demographic groups. There was also a clear relationship between physical and mental well-being; those who reported worsened physical health over the past year also experienced worsened mental health.

Part 2 explored the impact of living arrangements and social connection on mental well-being. Social isolation appeared to be a factor; respondents who live alone self-reported worse mental well-being compared to those who live with others. Additionally, respondents who work from home every day also appeared to have worse mental health levels compared to those who worked from home less often.

Part 3 looked at the impact of changes to employment and income on mental well-being. The unemployed appeared most vulnerable mental health-wise, and similarly for part-time employees. Respondents earning less than RM 5,000 also appeared to experience worse mental well-being relative to other income groups.

In this fourth and final instalment of the research series, we sought to understand which of the variables included in our study were the most statistically significant in driving high scores in depression, anxiety and stress levels. We conducted a multiple variable analysis on the data set, using multiple linear regression.

Regression analysis is a statistical method used to determine the strength of the relationship between a dependent variable (in this study, self-reported mental health scores) and one or more independent or predictor variables (for example, age, gender etc.) in a regression model. Multiple regression analysis allows us to determine the relative contribution of each of the predictor variables to the model, in order to identify the most significant predictors.

Results of the Multiple Variable Analysis

The multiple variable analysis on our data set found age and gender as highly significant predictors of depression, anxiety and stress while marital status is a highly significant predictor of depression and anxiety (Table 1). Other significant predictors are change in income and level of household income. Comparatively, other variables such as living alone (i.e. household occupancy) and working from home frequency were not as significant as suggested by the descriptive analysis.

Table 1: Predictors of mental well-being

With respect to age, there is a very significant likelihood that people aged 35 years and younger are experiencing worse mental health in terms of depression, anxiety and stress levels compared to older age groups. Uncertainty over future prospects, financial distress, social isolation and lack of quality sleep have been attributed as the likely causes by a global cross-sectional COVID-19 and well-being study published this year.

As for gender, there is a very significant likelihood that women have worse depression, anxiety and stress levels compared to men. A study published last year exploring the impact of the pandemic on women shows that gender-related challenges such as parenting challenges, uneven distribution of domestic care and the increased risk of domestic violence are some of the key contributors to women’s mental health difficulties.

Marital status is a very significant predictor of negative mental health as well; there is a very significant likelihood that people who are single during the pandemic have worse depression and anxiety levels compared to those who are married. A relationship quality and COVID-19 study published last year showed that single individuals had poorer mental health compared to those who were in relationships of good quality. This is supported by a social relationships and health study that showed how social support systems and a sense of meaning found in relationships led to better mental health and health behaviours overall.

Change in income is a significant predictor for depression, anxiety and stress. Based on our data set, there is a significant likelihood that a fall in income over the past year is accompanied by higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress compared to an increase or no change in income levels.

The absolute level of household income is a significant predictor for anxiety; there is a significant likelihood that individuals with household incomes less than RM5,000 experience higher anxiety levels compared to those with higher household incomes.

In Part 2, we discussed the impact of social isolation on self-reported mental health scores, particularly in those living alone and those who work from home (WFH) daily. Although the descriptive analysis showed a somewhat clear pattern in negative mental health scores, the variables of household occupancy and WFH frequency were only weakly significant as predictors of negative mental health.

Employment status (e.g. whether full-time, part-time or unemployed), number of financial dependents and availability of personal space were not included in the regression model as these variables were highly correlated with some of the above-mentioned variables and were very weakly significant in explaining the patterns observed in negative mental health scores.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, a full national lockdown had just been declared as it became clear that the third Movement Control Order then underway was not enough to bring down the rate of virus transmission. With case numbers breaching 9,000 a day, it is hard to visualise better days. But if we look to the history of past global pandemics and if the necessary precautions are taken, we can reasonably hope that the current worrying situation will gradually abate over the next one to two years.

However, we remain concerned about the long-term implications of the pandemic, beyond the immediate crisis. COVID-19 and successive lockdowns have amplified and exacerbated problems latent in Malaysian society, including widespread mental health challenges

Our study found that young people, women, unmarried Malaysians and those with reduced incomes are the ones most likely to have negative mental health after the year-long pandemic (and counting). These findings are generally consistent with other mental well-being studies, both local and worldwide.

These are groups that require particular mental health outreach and support, now and after the pandemic, alongside the various measures of economic support that have been announced. It is crucial that these groups are intentionally targeted for mental health support services by the government and civil society.

In addition, it is also necessary to have institutional reform. We have to rethink how existing ministries and agencies are involved in mental health support. Although the Ministry of Health leads public mental health, mental health support and services are fragmented across different ministries, such as the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and the Ministry of Education. There is a need to rebalance assistance budgets in relevant ministries to ensure greater recognition for and a higher level of support for mental health modules within various existing socioeconomic assistance and relief programmes.

There is also an argument for decentralising service provision and resources, and empowering regional and local authorities to address healthcare issues based on detailed local knowledge and contexts, particularly amongst vulnerable populations.

The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for many years, or even decades, to come. We need to address these very real social challenges now, if we are serious about helping Malaysians navigate their way safely into the post-pandemic future.

Academics and researchers interested in the data and further details of this research project may contact the principal researcher at aziff@centre.my.