The Financing Of RapidKL Bus Services Needs A Major Rethink

Since November 2020, RapidKL has terminated 13 bus routes throughout the Klang Valley, to general outcry from public transport users. Low ridership was stated as the main factor, driving RapidKL to restructure existing routes in order to optimise resources and assets. An outcome of this restructuring so far has been the scaling down of several bus routes in Shah Alam, Kajang and central KL.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been bad for public transport ridership, with the implementation of social distancing SOPs, a workforce that is increasingly working from home, and the general fear of being in public spaces. To some extent, the government’s introduction of the temporary MY30 monthly pass in June 2020 – extended to this year in Budget 2021 – can be seen as a way to mitigate the low ridership problem. Ridership however remains low. Prasarana, who owns bus operator RapidKL, estimated a ridership reduction of 40% from pre-pandemic levels.

With this as context, we ask the basic question: does low ridership justify the cutting of bus services? We argue that it does not and that the fundamental issue lies in how bus services are financed.

Subsidised, up to a point

The majority of transit bus services in the Klang Valley are operated by Prasarana which is owned and financed by the federal government. Prasarana receives government funds for capital expenditure but not for operating expenditure, the latter of which is meant to be covered by revenues from fares and other income-generating sources. As an indication of the shortfall: Prasarana’s total operating expenditure (total, not only for bus services) comes up to around RM300 million monthly i.e. around RM3.6 billion annually, but it receives around RM1.1 billion in revenues.

Given this shortfall it is unsurprising that when fare revenues fall further due to lower ridership and cheaper monthly passes, Prasarana is forced to limit their losses by cost-rationalising and terminating bus routes.

Realistically, even with the gradual roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, it is unlikely that we’ll see ridership return to pre-pandemic levels in the next 1-2 years. Service operators will have to sustain significant losses in the near term which would likely lead to even more cost-rationalisation and route-cutting. But bus services continue to be a vital public good to the commuters who have little other choice; these are the same ones facing wage reductions and employment shifts since the MCO.

Clearly, something has to change. It is time that we articulate how we value the benefits and multiplier effects of public goods like transit bus services – especially in times and events of low ridership – and use that as a basis for rethinking how these services should be financed.

The value of public goods

Supporting bus services has clear social and economic benefits such as mobility for vulnerable groups, reduced urban congestion, reductions in carbon emissions, and an increase in economic productivity. The American Public Transport Association shows that every $1 billion annually invested into public transportation delivers up to $3.5 billion of GDP generation.

Recognising the value of public goods go hand-in-hand with sensible financing. In 2018, Singapore allocated $1.1 billion under the Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP). Alongside subsidising bus services operations, the program also increased buses on the road and added new bus routes to serve a wider network.

While Malaysia’s PENJANA stimulus package in Budget 2021 supports public transport users through fare subsidies, it did not specify how public transport service providers would be supported in maintaining their operations. Given the current shortfalls, by funding only capital expenditure, and by hoping that fare revenues will cover operating costs, transit bus services will continue to be starved of sufficient resourcing. The lofty aim of increasing public transport modal share, never mind having a world-class public transportation system, will remain unachieved.

Where can increased funding come from?

Increasing government funding to cover bus service operations is admittedly difficult. In many countries including Malaysia, public transport is financed from general taxation, which means that public transport must compete with other public goods and programs for funding from a shared pool. Compared to education or health, spending on bus services could be seen as much lower priority, despite the importance of public transportation in enabling employment opportunities and supporting the most vulnerable communities.

One approach to consider in mitigating Prasarana’s losses from operating the majority of Klang Valley’s bus services is earmarked taxes. Earmarked taxes is when a proportion of revenue from a specific tax or charge is ‘earmarked’ or ring-fenced and used directly for public transportation.

A widely discussed source of earmarked tax is congestion pricing, a tax charged directly to private vehicle users for driving into specific urban centres. Congestion pricing has long been implemented in major cities like London and Singapore.

Since 2015, The Kuala Lumpur City Council (DBKL) has mulled implementing congestion pricing, though it remains to be seen whether there will be political will to implement it, not to mention earmarking it for improving KL’s bus services. If there is political will, we should look to best practices from cities like London which reinvests congestion pricing revenues into public transport operations and infrastructure development.

Another example of earmarked taxes is from vehicle registration fees used towards improving public transportation. In countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal, the vehicle registration tax goes one step further by taxing vehicles based on their carbon-emission rates.

Earmarking taxes such as congestion pricing and vehicle registration fees not only help to fund public transport services. In the case of congesting pricing especially, it also encourages commuters to use public transport more frequently as the more cost-effective alternative. Earmarking taxes, however, is admittedly complicated.

Local authorities that impose congestion pricing on local busy roads, for example in KL or PJ or Georgetown, may want such taxes to be earmarked for use only within the local council’s boundaries. This could get into messy turf issues as Prasarana is federally-owned.

Funding Prasarana from federal sources such as vehicle registration fees may also get into other turf issues; such fees are collected by MOT while Prasarana is MOF-owned. Resolving transit bus financing is not easy, but given the services’ current dire straits, the government needs to have the will and stamina to work through these issues. Else, Malaysia will continue to rely on an unsustainable model to deliver a much-needed public good.

Conclusion

Malaysians are in difficult times. Public transportation, and buses specifically, are essential in coping with economic hardship particularly for the more vulnerable members of society. The current financing model which places emphasis on funding capital expenditure but not operations has resulted in the termination of essential bus services. There will potentially be more service cuts in the future as service providers struggle to maintain their cash flow.

Earmarking taxes specifically for public transportation is not a perfect solution but it is worth serious consideration, as well as other financing models. At the core, we urge the government and service providers to approach financing bus services differently i.e. by valuing its worth as a public good instead of emphasising or prioritising commercial principles.


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Hateful to Whom, and How?

Hate speech has become a major concern in multi-ethnic societies around the world and Malaysia is not exempt. Slurs and hateful speech targeting ethnic and religious groups, from comments by ordinary individuals to statements by prominent figures, are prevalent.

The long-term consequences of hate speech could be extremely serious. Studies in other countries have shown that what appears to be merely ‘uncivil discourse’ could erode inter-ethnic trust over the long term to the point of instability.

Given the risks from hate speech in Malaysia, we argue that the current institutional and policy response in Malaysia is insufficient. Firstly, the understanding of what constitutes hate speech needs to be localised, or it runs the risk of being divorced from local values and historical context. Secondly, improvements are necessary to deal with the whole range of hate speech expressed today. Existing laws that deal with deterrent and punitive action against incitement need to be complemented with more pre-emptive and rehabilitative measures against less serious levels of hate speech.

Study Design

Read the study highlights.
Read the full report: Part 1 and Part 2.

To see if we could categorise hate speech systematically in Malaysia (and beyond), we embarked on research that sought to understand how ordinary Malaysians assess the seriousness of a range of offensive and hateful speech samples. Using the findings of the research, we then proposed a holistic framework by which to categorise and manage hate speech in Malaysia.

Our three core research questions are:

What is hate speech to Malaysians? In particular, how does the public discern between ‘less serious’ vs. ‘more serious’ speech, and whether there are differences across the major ethnic groups of Peninsular Malaysia*

Following from the above, what might a people-informed hate speech intensity categorisation look like for Malaysia?

What could be appropriate societal responses to different intensities of hate speech?

*Due to time, budget and conceptual constraints, this study focused on Peninsular Malaysia only. A separate study on Sabah & Sarawak’s assessment of hate speech would be a valuable extension of research in this area.

For the purposes of our study, we define hate speech as speech that has public impact (i.e. not private exchanges) and speech deemed offensive or hateful targeting a group trait such as race or religion.

Both quantitative and qualitative methods were employed. The study required respondents to indicate how they reacted to 15 samples of offensive / hateful speech. 

The speech samples were chosen to correspond to Peninsular Malaysia’s most significant cultural-political fault lines. 9 speech samples were selected as targeting race (Malay, Chinese and Indians) and six speech samples were selected as targeting religion & culture (Muslims vs. non-Muslims and non-Malays).

For the quantitative phase of the study, a face-to-face survey of 200 Malays, 200 Chinese and 200 Indians was conducted in major urban areas throughout Peninsular Malaysia. Respondents could choose to answer the survey in English, BM or Mandarin. Respondents were asked to score the 15 speech samples based on how offensive (O), fearful (F) and threatening to society (T) they found the sample to be.

For the qualitative phase of the study, three focus groups, each consisting of 7 Malay, Chinese and Indian participants respectively were convened over two days in Klang Valley. Focus groups were conducted in the participants’ language of choice. Participants were asked to rate the same speech samples against a simpler 3-level scale: L1 for Not Very Serious, L2 for Moderately Serious and L3 for Very Serious. The reasons behind their ratings were probed by a skilled moderator, to aid in the analysis for common themes.

Key Findings

Based on the responses of both the survey and the focus group, we found that speech samples can be classified into three categories, with each category exhibiting consistent general characteristics.

The first category consisted of speech samples that obtained relatively high scores from survey respondents overall, as well as speech samples that obtained high scores from the targeted group. Based on the qualitative responses of focus group participants to samples considered ‘very serious’, it was clear that content is a key factor, in two ways. First, hate speech that disrespected religion, threatened violence or encouraged hatred against a group were considered as very serious across all ethnicities. Second, hate speech that demeaned the humanity or status of a particular ethnicity were found to be very serious by the targeted group. The theme of ‘context’ was also stronger for this category of speech compared to other categories – many of the speech samples were seen to have the potential to trigger general unrest in society.

The second category consisted of speech samples that obtained middling scores in the survey. Based on the qualitative responses of focus group participants to samples that were considered middling or ‘moderately serious’, we surmise that content is again a driving factor. Here, the content or substance of the message is seen as offensive but not intensely so due to various factors, such as whether the content has become ‘normalised’ to the respondent. Respondents also felt that speech samples can be ‘promoted’ or ‘demoted’ to this category of speech by the presence of mitigating or aggravating factors such as the status of the speaker, the perceived intent behind the speech, the reach of the message, amongst others.

The third category consisted of speech samples that were rated relatively low in intensity by the majority of survey respondents. Based on the qualitative responses of focus group participants to speech samples rated as ‘not very serious’, we surmise that the nature of these speech samples’ content is again key. The content or substance of the message is seen as negative in general but not to the extent of causing offence or fear – for example, the message is perceived as nonsensical rather than insulting. The impact of the content is also lessened by the presence of mitigating factors such as the ‘ordinary’ status of the speaker and the limited reach of the message.

Based on the above, we put forward that the capacity of a speech’s (or act’s) content to cause feelings of offence, fear and threat to societal stability is the first key factor in determining the speech’s seriousness in terms of hatefulness. The second key factor is the presence of mitigating or aggravating factors which includes the status of the speaker, the perceived intent behind the speech, the reach of the message and the unique impact of the speech given Malaysia’s historical, cultural and political context (see Figure 2).

Policy Recommendations

To address the full range of hate speech in Malaysia requires us to have a more comprehensive, cohesive and proportionate approach.

Existing legislative responses and police enforcement towards hate speech in Malaysia should be more clearly focused on criminal levels of hate speech i.e. ‘very serious’ speech that by its content and other factors is an incitement to violence or mass violence. Less serious forms of hate speech, which range from mildly provocative speech to incitement to marginalise, should be addressed by more pre-emptive and rehabilitative measures such as public education and the articulation of codes of conduct (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: The Hate Speech ‘Spectrum’ and Current Policy Risks


Based on the findings of our research, we propose a hate speech management framework that consists of (i) transparent categorisation of hate speech according to levels of intensity, and (ii) a whole-of-society response. 

Categorisation

The experience of the research process shows that it is possible to develop a categorisation framework outlining the general characteristics of different levels of hate speech seriousness. As a first principle for any categorisation framework to be developed, be it for an organisation or for national policy, we propose that it be kept simple but sufficient. Starting with a 3-point categorisation scale, from ‘not very serious’ to ‘moderately serious’ to ‘very serious’ enables sufficient differentiation and avoids becoming too complex or unwieldy* (see Figure 2).

*Whether ‘very serious’ hate speech should be further defined as ‘incitement’ could be a future extension of research work in this dynamic subject.


Figure 2: A Starting Point for Hate Speech Categorisation

The second principle we propose for hate speech categorisation is to prioritise the targeted group’s perception or rating of the hate speech’s seriousness. Unsurprisingly, our research shows differences in the level of offence and fear experienced by targeted groups vs. non-targeted groups. To avoid underestimating a speech or an act’s potential to cause societal harm, the categorisation of a statement’s seriousness should be weighted more heavily on the targeted group’s perception.

Response

Building from the above, we propose a response framework that engages the whole of society (see Figure 3). The response framework also needs to take into account the scale and the scope of implementation; for example, the resources required to manage hate speech for a school or company would be very different from a media platform. Lastly, the response has to be both proportionate (i.e. commensurate with the offence) and constructive (i.e. include rehabilitative measures).


Figure 3: Whole-Of-Society Response to Hate Speech

‘Not very serious’ hate speech could be mainly addressed in pre-emptive and rehabilitative ways by civil society-led actions focused on cultural awareness and building bridges between communities. Indeed, fledgling civil society efforts are already in place in Malaysia, which include diverse programs and advocacy by Architects of Diversity, Article 19, Tribeless, Pusat KOMAS, CIJ and many others, though there are still few specific references to hate speech. Apart from such efforts, we also advocate for organisations to start articulating and integrating codes of conduct on hate speech and civil discourse within relevant policies (for our other recommendations, see Figure 4).

‘Moderately serious’ hate speech could be addressed by educational or bridge-building programs but for cases that require mediation or investigation, we propose a national arbiter function, such as in a commission or a tribunal, that provides an avenue for resolving civil complaints related to hate speech. Apart from case resolution, this function could also set out national hate speech guidelines that could help inform the codes of conduct of various organisations, from companies to media to political parties.  Examples of such a function in other countries include the Australian Human Rights Comission, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and the City Committees under the Anti-Hate Speech Ordinance in Japan.

Certain cases of ‘very serious’ hate speech could be dealt with by the aforementioned national commission or tribunal but cases that pass a clearly defined criminal threshold (e.g. incitement to violence) should be dealt with via the criminal justice system. The Sedition Act, the Penal Code Sections 298A and 503-505, the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act all have provisions that broadly address hateful speech. However, the existing definitions and underlying assessments used are still very broad and therefore lends itself to the risk of misuse or being disproportionately punitive. We therefore advocate the establishment of a national framework for hate speech categorisation and response which, at the minimum, clarifies the difference between criminal and non-criminal acts of hate speech (for our other recommendations, see Figure 4).


Figure 4: Further Recommendations & Hopes for Whole-Of-Society Approach


The full range of hate speech should be addressed if we are to balance freedom of speech with the obligations of living in a diverse multi-ethnic society. We hope this study contributes towards the body of work that informs guidelines and frameworks for managing hate speech in Malaysia, be it for a department, an organisation, a group of concerned citizens or for the country.

The Centre extends heartfelt thanks to research consultant Dr. Murni Md. Nor and project sponsors Westports Berhad, MARI and USAID for their invaluable support throughout the study.

Read the study highlights here.
Read Part 1 of the full report here.
Read Part 2 of the full report here.

Not All ‘Gig Workers’ Are The Same

Certain types of gig work have become increasingly important for employment in Malaysia, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the enforcement of the first Movement Control Order (MCO) in March this year, gig platforms like Grab and Foodpanda have experienced a surge in the demand for delivery services as well as delivery rider applications. This trend has not gone amiss among researchers, policy thinkers and the media, and we have seen a number of editorials, research work and media reports focusing on the welfare of gig workers.

However, there is one common issue inherent in these writings and discussions which needs to be addressed immediately: how the term ‘gig worker’ is used. The term is often used as a catch-all phrase, which unfortunately conceals important differences amongst the wide range of work and workers. If left unaddressed, it can be problematic for effective policymaking. 

Unpacking the term ‘gig workers’

Historically, the idea of gig work is not new. In the recent past, workers on contract were commonly known as independent contractors or freelancers who take on projects or ‘gigs’ instead of being locked into part-time or full-time employment. The term ‘gig worker’ only became popular in Malaysia in the early 2010s when ride-sharing platforms Uber and Grab entered the market, and since then we’ve seen delivery riders and e-hailing drivers also being labelled as independent contractors.

Nevertheless it remains that the term ‘gig worker’ as is used today embraces many different types of jobs and skillsets, from delivery riders to freelance graphic designers. The 2021 Economic Outlook Review defined ‘gig workers’ as anyone who engages in temporary jobs such as contracts or short-term gigs. The Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) categorises all ‘gig workers’ as independent contractors or own-account workers, an employment class that covers a wide scope of workers.

We argue that for clearer policymaking, these official definitions need to recognise and spotlight one crucial differentiating factor. Yes, there are differences in job nature, skill level, demographic profile and more. But the one key aspect that truly differentiates workers in this broad class is the power relationship between the worker and the gig platform.

For those who work as ‘white-collar’ freelancers such as graphic designers, copywriters, programmers and others, gig platforms like Upwork and TaskRabbit serve as a marketplace where the workers showcase their services, portfolio and rates to attract potential clients. Though constrained by the usual laws of supply and demand, workers here have relative control over the jobs they take and the rates they charge. The gig platform takes a commission but does not directly determine or offer jobs to the workers.

On the other hand, those who perform gig work like e-hailing and delivery have a very different relationship with their gig platforms. Based on proprietary and in-house algorithms, gig platforms offer rides or delivery jobs to workers within the location radius and other factors. Prices of each ride or delivery job are set by the gig platforms. In theory, workers are free to accept or reject the jobs offered but in many gig platforms, penalties are built into the system for low rates of job acceptance.

A July 2020 paper by the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose offers a useful way to differentiate gig workers based on an employer’s or platform’s degree of control vs. an employee’s or worker’s dependence. Workers who are not dependent on any specific gig platform for work or have their jobs controlled by the employer truly fit the description ‘independent contractors’ (Figure 1).

On the other hand, workers who depend on a gig platform to receive jobs or have aspects of their job controlled by the gig platform are better described as ‘dependent contractors’ or ‘reliant contractors’ (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Dependence and Control Framework

Source: UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.

It stands to reason that ‘independent’ vs. ‘dependent’ or ‘reliant’ contractors require different social safety net support and labour protections.

Policy pitfalls of too-broad terminology

Given the wide variety of workers and the difference in power dynamics, using ‘gig worker’ to describe any worker on short contracts risks producing shallow legislation with unintended consequences. One noteworthy example is the passing and enforcement of Assembly Bill No. 5 (AB5) in California in late 2019, which re-classified gig workers (including independent freelancers) as full-time employees.

The implementation of AB5 inadvertently cost many contract workers their livelihoods. Many freelancers had their contracts terminated as they could not commit to the work commitments set by AB5. Some companies also could not afford the additional labour costs incurred from converting such contract workers to full-time employees, particularly health insurance costs. Moreover, the rigid employment definition used in AB5 also penalised part-timers who enjoyed the flexibility of gig work such as those in the arts community.

A year after the enforcement of AB5, Uber, Lyft, Doordash and other gig platform companies put forward California Proposition 22 (Prop 22), a private bill designed to overturn AB5 and re-determine the employment status of gig workers/freelancers. A majority of those who voted (58%) chose to redefine ride-sharing and food delivery gig workers as contractors, but contractors who are eligible for a minimum earnings guarantee of at least 120% of the state’s hourly minimum wage as well as some healthcare coverage.

The legislative debates and switchback from AB5 to Prop 22 is a reminder for policymakers not to overlook the key differences between so-called ‘gig workers’. The support and assistance needed by truly ‘independent contractors’ like freelancers will not be the same as the more dependent or reliant gig workers like delivery riders. ‘Independent contractors’ may need more support in drafting good service contracts and protection against unscrupulous clients. ‘Dependent or reliant contractors’ may require more active measures such as social safety net coverage and protection from overzealous platform algorithms.

Better Terms For A New Growth Area

Malaysia’s 2021 Economic Outlook Review marked the gig economy as a new growth area (hat tip: the report also cited our past research on gig workers to highlight the reality of this work as an important source of income that lacks social protection*). As a way forward, the government has set up a committee with representatives from the Ministry of Human Resources, Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs to study legislative options in protecting gig workers.

*At the time of writing, gig workers were only eligible for voluntary protections, such as Self-Employed Employment Injury Scheme (SEEIS) and i-Saraan.

While countries around the world, including Malaysia, continue to study the options for gig worker regulation, one thing that has been clear about gig workers so far is that they are not the same. Based on the gig workers’ power relationship with gig platforms as well as the nature of gig work and their skill levels, they face different types of vulnerabilities.

As such, the government needs to have separate terminology for each worker segment to formulate appropriate and effective legislation – a paper by the Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis (ILMIA) provides a good starting point and this differentiation should be acknowledged in future policies.

Crowd work is web-based, on-demand labour, where tasks are completed behind a computer anywhere. Some of the examples are copywriting, translating and coding work.

Gig work is platform-mediated, location-based labour, where selected individuals are connected to tasks by a platform or work-on-demand app, and the work is completed offline. For instance, e-hailing, food delivery and household services.

Source: Gani, H. (2020). The gig economy: Platformisation and fragmentation of work. Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis (ILMIA). 

At the centre of policy discussions about gig worker regulations is the problem of classifying workers with different vulnerabilities. How lawmakers define and understand the nature of different worker segments will determine whether future policies or legislations truly address their needs. 

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

Can Everyone Really Reskill Themselves?

Reskilling, upskilling and cross-skilling have become policy buzzwords in recent times. The recent Budget 2021 continued this emphasis in training the workforce by announcing allocations totalling over RM19 billion, to be delivered via various programs by a wide range of agencies from MDEC to PUNB.

This is a generous allocation, but are allocations for course provision adequate? Through our recent research, it became clear that course provision needs to be accompanied with complementary measures that enable access.



As we outline in our illustrated piece below, a person’s background and circumstances significantly determine whether they can or will access available programs.

Meet Aiman*

*Fictional character Aiman is inspired by our interviews with non-graduate informal workers as well as our study findings.

Aiman is a 28-year-old assembly line worker at a factory in Selangor. He holds an SPM certificate. He earns RM1800 a month which barely covers his family’s living expenses. His wife stays home to look after their two children as reliable childcare is costly.

To make ends meet, he does gig work as a delivery rider after his factory working hours. He usually comes home late at night and sleeps for a few hours before going to the next day’s factory shift.

The factory’s sales have been very unstable due to the tough Covid-19 economy. As a result, Aiman’s shifts have been reduced. It was a matter of time anyway — Aiman knows that the factory has been planning to replace some manual tasks with machines.

To make up the lost income, Aiman started putting more hours into delivery gig work. But since the MCO, more people have started doing delivery gig work, even people with higher educational qualifications. More people fighting for the same jobs means longer hours.

Aiman knows that he can’t do these jobs forever. He sees words like ‘reskilling’ but it feels like they’re only for privileged people – people who speak English, people who work with computers, people who can apply what they learn online. Even if there are suitable programs for him, he does not know how to find them – there’s a lot of information out there, but very little guidance. His family and social circles can’t really help him much either.

Aiman wants to do better for the sake of his family but he can’t see too far into the future. He needs to focus on surviving now. Taking time out to reskill himself is also very risky – will he really get a better job at the end? Can he afford to pay for the course? What happens to his income and his family in the meantime?

Until these questions are answered, Aiman will keep on doing low-wage jobs that come his way.

Understanding the challenges

Malaysia has an extensive skills development ecosystem with various program offerings and funding options. For workers from backgrounds like Aiman’s however, extensive does not mean accessible. There are several challenges that stand in the way of accessing available opportunities.


High risk and opportunity cost

Taking time out to reskill means cutting back working hours and forgoing much needed income. Even if the reskilling program is flexible in terms of hours, cutting income is too much of an opportunity cost for low-waged workers especially when there is very little savings buffer. And not all informal workers are eligible for training allowances (more on this below).

The uncertainty of going for reskilling is also a deterring factor. Not all programs offer job placements or have a known track record in developing sustainable micro-entrepreneurs. There are no guarantees for anyone of course, but the risk of uncertain outcomes for those with low incomes and little savings are even greater.

One of the top factors in accessing a reskilling program is income replacement. 88% of study respondents want a training allowance to replace their lost income during the program duration. Certainty is important too; 87% respondents said that having a guaranteed job opportunity is important or very important to them when considering to join any training program.


Limited eligibility for funding options

Not all informal workers can access the funding options on offer. PTPK loans are only applicable to full-time programmes approved by the Department of Skill Development (DSD) under the Ministry of Human Resources. Only workers under HRDF-registered companies can access HRDF funds, with their employer’s approval. The training subsidy and allowance provided by EIS Centre are only available for EIS contributors. In other words, a large share of informal workers will not have access to key sources of training funds on offer today.

In our latest study, 58% of the non-graduates who participated in training or reskilling before had paid for their training fee themselves. 19% was covered by a government agency while 14% was covered by their employer.


Ecosystem difficult to navigate

The ability to access reskilling opportunities depend in large part on whether one can navigate the information available to find programs that best fit their needs and interests. Workers who are digitally savvy and proficient in English are more advantaged in this respect. Those who are not as savvy will be challenged by the various landing pages and registration portals scattered across multiple agency and training provider websites.

Our recent study found that 78% of respondents are interested or very interested in reskilling but only 30% have participated in a program. Over half of those who have not participated in any reskilling program say they do not know where or how to access the training courses. In interviews with respondents, we found that non-graduates from well-educated middle-income families were more comfortable and proficient in searching for reskilling opportunities online.


Weak career guidance and social capital support

Unlike graduates, most non-degree holders have never had access to career counselling or guidance to learn about available career options. And unlike those from higher-income backgrounds, their social capital – such as family members or friends – are not as able to connect them to good work, training or mentoring opportunities.

Only 30% of respondents in our study comprising non-degree holders have received career counselling whereas more than two-thirds say they would like to receive professional career advice and guidance.


Lack of attention to segment’s needs and interests

In line with the drive to digitalise the economy, particularly in light of COVID-19, reskilling programs that focus on digital skills have received much policy emphasis. Digital skills such as digital marketing, coding and programming may be of interest to some non-graduates (or even graduates) but for many, it may not be easily translated into an income-generating avenue. Many of these programs also presume a minimum level of comfort with online learning as well as English proficiency.

Two-thirds of survey respondents said that they would take up reskilling to ‘be their own boss’, either to become a freelancer or to set up a small business. 71% of respondents expressed preference for apprenticeship programs, with Bahasa Malaysia as the main language of instruction.

Conclusion

The age of digitalisation could exacerbate today’s inequalities. To ensure social mobility for all in this era, policymakers must go the extra mile to ensure everyone, particularly from less privileged backgrounds, can access available reskilling opportunities.

Policymakers need to understand the different demographics’ opportunity costs, learning capacities, interests and language proficiencies to ensure that programs and allocations for reskilling really reach those who need it the most. Providing reskilling courses is one component of the solution; supporting measures such as information organisation, course curation, simpler funding options, and guidance also need to be in place.



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What Charlie Hebdo Continues To Teach Us

It’s been a deadly and grim reckoning for European liberal societies these past few weeks. The first domino fell on Friday 16 October with the gruesome beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty near his school by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee. French authorities have claimed a direct link between the killing and a social media campaign which targeted the history teacher for showing the infamous Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on freedom of speech.

Since then the dominos have continued to drop, accelerated by early statements such as President Emmanuel Macron’s who vowed to defend freedom of speech but without sufficiently recognising the strong offence provoked by the caricatures. Despite (or perhaps because of) the announcement of additional measures to combat radical Islam, another related attack occurred in Nice just under two weeks after Paty’s killing. Earlier this week, a similarly motivated shooting occurred in Vienna

Unsurprisingly, President Macron’s initial response has also sparked backlash from the Muslim world. Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran have condemned him, while Gulf States such as Qatar and Kuwait have launched a boycott of French goods. 50,000 people reportedly took to the streets in Bangladesh and 3,000 in Indonesia in massive rallies to protest the caricatures and France’s handling of the issue.

A worrying second wave of Covid-19 may have dampened the appetite for demonstrations in  Malaysia but leaders such as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim have made known their thoughts on the matter, causing the former to have an eyebrow-raising post removed by Twitter (more on this later).

The Vienna attack is unlikely to be the last domino to fall. Judging by the hardened stand taken on in this latest tragedy, further retaliations can be expected, fatal or otherwise. This brings us to our first takeaway from this latest chapter of the Charlie Hebdo saga, namely that free speech exacts an extremely high price in multicultural societies. Therefore, how a country chooses to manage is ultimately a question of compromise between free speech, national security and inter-group harmony.

To date, it is clear that there is little desire to compromise in France. French officials have not only defended Charlie Hebdo republishing the cartoons last September, some have gone further by announcing that a booklet with the cartoons would be handed out to high school students. The cartoons have been elevated into a symbol of France’s commitment to freedom of expression at the cost of alienating Muslims in France, angering Muslims elsewhere in the world and threatening the safety of French nationals at home and abroad.

It would not be a cost that Malaysia, or indeed Malaysians, would be willing to incur had this situation occurred here. Malaysian laws related to freedom of speech prioritise inter-group harmony over unfettered expression. The publication or use of such caricatures would have likely run foul of existing laws against incitement and misuse of multimedia communications. 

Our research on hate speech also strongly suggests that the majority of ordinary Malaysians would have rated the cartoons as a clear case of ‘very serious’ hate speech and would have favoured strong response, including censorship. This would not ‘just’ have been a Muslim response – most of the hate speech samples associated with religion in our study were rated as ‘very serious’ across all ethnic groups. Apart from the sacredness of religion to many Malaysians, we also observed a strong desire amongst respondents to avoid the potential unrest that such statements could trigger.

Much of this is due to Malaysia’s unique ethnic composition and historical context. By the same token, understanding France’s context is essential in understanding its leaders’ reactions today. The freedom to blaspheme is considered a pillar of French democracy since the country separated church and state in 1905. Under very secular French laws, citizens are allowed to challenge religious ideas, no matter how obnoxiously.

Charlie Hebdo’s satirical anti-religious depictions of Islam and Christianity alike has prevailed in most legal cases. However, what is considered to be ‘incitement of hatred’ is outlawed. For instance, film star Brigitte Bardot was fined four times between 1997 and 2008 for issuing inflammatory comments against Muslims.

Even so, the France of 1905 is not the France of 2020 and the question of whether multicultural Western nations can realistically continue to maintain these values is being debated today. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. A lack of compromise discounts the stigma felt by ethnic minorities, sowing seeds of polarisation and hate crime as shown by many studies.

Our research on Malaysian hate speech lends credence to this ‘cultural discounting’. Malaysians as a whole are relatively aware of what others may find offensive but even so, the targeted group’s sense of offence or fear is often noticeably underestimated by the non-targeted group. The definition of ‘hate speech’ or ‘incitement’ therefore should not be based purely on ideology, but needs to credibly incorporate how the targeted group perceives the statement or the act.

This brings us to our second and final takeaway from this on-going saga: when it comes to religion, the idea of the ‘targeted group’ crosses national borders. The defence of a caricature insulting Islam published in France provokes not only French Muslims but Muslims all over the world. In the same vein, a retaliatory tweet by a prominent leader such as Tun Dr Mahathir can also be read as justification for violent acts of Muslim vengeance such as those in Paris, Nice and Vienna.

In an era of social media dominance, the stance and messaging by political leaders in response to offensive or hateful speech is more critical than ever before. A statement meant mainly for the local electorate could have unexpected ripple effects on a global audience and trigger reactions amongst radicalised groups. It is a new test of statesmanship (including the thoughtful use of Twitter) as well as social media regulation.

It may seem ironic, but in July this year French parliamentarians passed a law to combat online hate speech. If the Charlie Hebdo caricatures were spread online, should they be considered hate speech? Would they have been deleted, as was Tun’s offending post? It’s clear that this very much depends on how countries and social media platforms choose to balance freedom of speech with the costs it exacts. Recognising the costs would be a constructive step forward.

For our part as researchers and Malaysians, we advocate a hate speech categorisation framework that is informed by the targeted groups’ perceptions. Our study into hate speech, which is currently being finalised, outlines such a proposal for Malaysia.

*This piece also appeared as an op-ed on The Rakyat Post.

Why Suicide Should Not Be a Crime in Malaysia

Are suicide attempts criminal? The law says it is, according to Section 309 of the Penal Code, a legacy of British colonial law which is still in place. However, with better understanding of mental health today, this law may no longer be suitable. It is past time we rethink this legal response to suicide, which ignores the underlying mental health background that pushes those to take or attempt to take their own lives.

We call for it to be repealed — and in its place we recommend actually addressing key causes of suicide, which is rooted in mental health difficulties. A care-based approach would, we argue, lower suicide rates by addressing mental health issues before it escalates to the level of suicide.

But before that, what is Section 309 of the Penal Code, and how did it come to be?

Section 309 Penal Code

Whoever attempts to commit suicide, and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both.

The Criminalisation of Suicide

Section 309 of the Penal Code was enacted in then-Malaya in 1936 and continues to this day as a colonial legacy. It originates from the Indian Penal Code which was based on British Common Law. However, during that time, mental health and mental illness, as well as its root causes or treatments, was not well-understood.

Significant progress has since been made in this field, with the causes of suicide ideation identified to be rooted in multiple factors, including financial distress, grief, loss of a loved one and many others. It is understood now that mental health difficulties are responses to an individual’s social and economic conditions.

A number of countries that also adopted the Indian Penal Code such as Singapore and Sri Lanka have since repealed this law, or now uphold modified versions of Section 309. Many ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, also do not consider suicide a crime. Malaysia, however, has not yet followed suit.

Currently, the Malaysian government response on suicide attempts sends mixed signals. One the one hand, suicide attempts are seen as a mental health issue that needs treatment (as it should be): the Ministry of Health’s Psychiatric and Mental Health Services Operational Policy states that if an individual is admitted into medical care for a suicide attempt, they are kept under close supervision until they are deemed to be in a stable condition to not harm themselves.

On the other hand, the legal approach towards suicide attempts do not seem to take into consideration the mental health aspects: for those charged under Section 309, there is no indication that the individual is referred for medical or psychological care after or during sentencing. Having a law that criminalises suicide may also discourage people from seeking help even when help is available, as they may fear that coming out and seeking help can have legal repercussions.

Decriminalising Suicide in Malaysia

While calls to decriminalise suicide attempts have been largely growing, no substantive action has taken place. As far back as 2012, the Malaysian government’s Law Reform Committee attempted to review Section 309. In the same year, the Minister of Health stated that the law is no longer relevant, saying that the law does not address the issue of mental health.

Since then, different bodies and NGOs, such as the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA), the Human Rights Society (HAKAM) and the Malaysian Mental Health Promotion Advisory Council have continuously called on the Federal Government to repeal the law.

The Pakatan Harapan government last year committed to amending the Penal Code to no longer make suicide a crime. No further discussion has since taken place. However, the call for decriminalisation was revived recently following the sentencing of an unemployed man under Section 309 — he was fined RM3,000 for trying to commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of his flat. While he was ‘only’ sentenced to a fine, it still brings up the question of whether suicide should be treated as a crime rather than a human tragedy.

Mandating mental health support

Hand in hand with decriminalising suicide, we need to have structures to support those facing suicidal ideation and mental health issues. If Malaysia were to take this step, what needs to be in place? We look at existing mental healthcare frameworks in other countries which have either taken this step, or have a more progressive approach towards mental health.

Earlier this year, Singapore decriminalised suicide by amending its Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act. The framework establishes that affected individuals are referred to mental health professionals, and that experts from different sectors – mental health, physical health and social services can compel mental health interventions with legal backing.

In Ireland, the country’s National Office for Suicide Prevention funds a National Self Harm Registry. This database allows authorities to identify repeated incidents of self-harm and direct appropriate mental health interventions to affected individuals. There is an opportunity to replicate this model, as it would allow agencies, NGOs and authorities to identify at-risk individuals, alongside actively monitoring and offering support.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s healthcare system utilises a surveillance and care system. It is a multi-step framework that allows for both screening, care and follow-up. Since its introduction in 2009, by 2016, the system was accessible to 48.5% of individuals with depressive disorders from 3.7% previously.

Following these salient examples of community mental healthcare approaches, what we hope to see in Malaysia is a system where individuals who attempted suicide are redirected by relevant authorities to get mental health support. From here, there should be increased and continued monitoring – a crucial step as as there is a likelihood of re-attempting suicide, with poor adherence to treatment increasing this risk. Resources to support this, such as increased funding for social workers and a secure registry of those at risk, similar to Ireland’s National Self-Harm Registry, should be considered.

The Ministry of Health’s MENTARI program, which is community-focused, might be best suited in implementing this sort of framework. Apart from offering mental health support and awareness outreach, these centres also focus on managing cases of suicidal behaviour. Case studies in the Middle-East have shown that when it comes to mental health support, a community-based approach has been effective and decreases the strain on existing healthcare systems.

Repealing Section 309

Laws and its amendments can form the basis for cultural change. A legal system can signal to society on how the government approaches certain issues, and can serve as the barometer of societal acceptance. It has been eight years since the Law Reform Committee spoke about reviewing Section 309 — when will lawmakers finally move ahead with this?

Just talking about how suicide attempts are underpinned by mental health difficulties is not enough: we need to have this – finally – reflected in the legal system. By no longer making it a crime, the government can further signal to Malaysian society that suicide is not a taboo subject, that it’s not a crime but a mental health issue, and that suicide attempts are a cry for help.

Individuals suffering with suicide ideation and attempt suicide are experiencing a legitimate mental health issue that deserves the dignity of treatment, which we can provide if, instead of sending people to jail or fining them, we have an effective framework that is empathetic and care-based in place instead.

If you are experiencing emotional distress, you can seek support from Befrienders (24-hours) at 03-76272929 for free.

Pendekatan Bersepadu Dalam Menangani Masalah Kewangan dan Kesihatan Mental

Pada bulan April tahun ini, sebulan selepas Perintah Kawalan Pergerakan (PKP) pertama dikuatkuasakan, The Centre telah membuat kajian tentang bagaimana PKP mempengaruhi kesejahteraan mental orang ramai di Malaysia. Tidak mengejutkan apabila kami mendapati bahawa mereka yang telah mengalami pengurangan pendapatan melaporkan perasaan kemurungan, kegelisahan dan stres yang lebih tinggi daripada mereka yang tidak mengalami apa-apa perubahan atau ada peningkatan dalam pendapatan mereka.

Walaupun kadar pengangguran rasmi Malaysia telah mula pulih sedikit, tetapi rata-rata orang ramai masih risau tentang kestabilan kewangan mereka. Dengan berakhirnya moratorium bayaran pinjaman 30 September lalu, tambahan beban kewangan mungkin memberi kesan kepada terhadap kesejahteraan mental.

Beberapa kajian akademik telah membuktikan bagaimana masalah masalah kewangan dan masalah kesihatan mental berkait rapat. Dapatan kajian ini boleh kita jadikan asas bagi menangani masalah ini secara lebih proaktif. Kami mencadangkan pendekatan yang lebih bersepadu dalam merangka program bantuan, yang melibatkan institusi kewangan dan juga perkhidmatan kesihatan mental.

Masalah Yang Meruncing

Sebelum kita berbincang tentang pendekatan yang perlu diambil, mari kita lihat latarbelakang masalah ini.

Hubungan antara kesihatan mental dan masalah kewangan saling berkaitan. Sebagai contoh, seseorang yang mempunyai banyak hutang mungkin akan lebih terdedah kepada emosi negatif seperti kemurungan atau kegelisahan. Gangguan emosi ini boleh mempengaruhi kemampuan beliau untuk menguruskan hutangnya dengan berkesan. Pengurusan hutang yang lemah boleh menjurus kepada pertambahan bebanan kewangan, lantas menambah risiko mengalami emosi negatif yang lebih teruk lagi –  dan kitaran ini akan berlanjutan.

Bagi mereka yang sedia ada masalah kesihatan mental, bebanan kewangan boleh  memburukkan lagi keadaan. Tambahan pula, di kalangan mereka yang berpendapatan rendah, masalah kesihatan mental ini selalunya tidak dikesan. Hasil penyelidikan oleh Mental Health Foundation UK menunjukkan bahawa risiko masalah kesihatan mental adalah lebih tinggi di kalangan mereka yang berada di taraf sosio-ekonomi rendah. Kehilangan pekerjaan dan jumlah hutang yang meningkat secara mendadak akibat kesan ekonomi pandemik Covid-19 boleh menyebabkan krisis kesihatan mental di kalangan mereka yang rentan dari segi kewangan.

Oleh kerana masalah kesihatan mental dan kewangan saling berhubungkait, respons kita sewajarnya mengambil kira kaitan ini dan seterusnya, memastikan ada saluran bantuan yang mengambilkira kedua-dua aspek ini.

Memperbaiki Sistem Sokongan

Buat masa sekarang, seseorang yang menghadapi masalah kesihatan mental mungkin akan mendapatkan bantuan dari kaunselor atau pakar psikiatri. Individu yang mengalami masalah kewangan pula akan berurusan dengan bank untuk menyelesaikan masalah kewangan tersebut; mereka juga boleh dirujuk kepada agensi seperti AKPK untuk pengurusan kewangan berhemat. Mereka yang menghadapi masalah ini mungkin tidak menyedari bahawa kedua – dua masalah tersebut adalah berkaitan, dan seterusnya mendapatkan bantuan untuk menyelesaikan satu masalah sahaja.

Kita perlu mengambil langkah yang, pertamanya, akan meningkatkan kesedaran masyarakat tentang hubungan antara masalah kewangan dan kesihatan mental. Ini juga boleh membantu usaha untuk menghilangkan stigma berkaitan isu ini , dan mengalakkan orang ramai lebih terbuka untuk mendapatkan bantuan sewajarnya.

Kita juga memerlukan sistem atau rangkaian yang membolehkan rujukan silang antara pihak yang menangani masalah kewangan dengan mereka yang menyediakan perkhidmatan kesihatan mental. Sudah tentu, pegawai pinjaman kewangan tidak boleh menjadi ahli psikologi, dan sebaliknya – tetapi rujukan silang ini bermakna seseorang individu itu boleh mendapatkan bantuan yang bersesuaian dengan keadaan yang mereka sedang alami.

Yang penting, kita dapat memberi panduan tepat serta maklumat berguna dan seseorang yang menghadapi masalah kewangan boleh diberi pilihan untuk mendaftar untuk mendapatkan bantuan kesihatan mental dan sebaliknya.

 Program Sinergi Sosial (SSP) yang dilancarkan oleh Perkeso pada tahun 2018, adalah contoh bagaimana respons bersepadu dapat dirancang. Program ini menghimpunkan beberapa agensi dan organisasi yang bekerjasama di bawah pendekatan ‘no-wrong-door’. Program ini membolehkan rujukan silang antara pihak-pihak untuk menyelesaikan pelbagai masalah yang dihadapi oleh pelanggan.

Pelan Jangka Panjang: Garis Panduan Bersama

Walaupun kaunselor kewangan bukan pakar kesihatan mental dan sebaliknya, namun terdapat ruang untuk membina rangkaian perkongsian pengetahuan dan seterusnya membangunkan garis panduan bersama supaya barisan hadapan di kedua-dua sektor lebih bersedia dalam menangani masalah ini.

Contoh garis panduan yang dimaksudkan sudah wujud di beberapa negara, terutamanya di Eropah yang terkesan dengan krisis kewangan pada tahun 2008. Money Advice Liaison Group di UK menyediakan garis panduan untuk organisasi dan barisan hadapan ketika berurusan dengan pengguna yang mengalami masalah kesihatan mental serta kewangan. Sementara itu, Mental Health First Aid Australia menyediakan garis panduan berasingan untuk kakitangan institusi kewangan, akauntan, kaunselor kewangan dan profesional kesihatan mental ketika berurusan dengan individu yang mempunyai masalah kesihatan mental dan kewangan.

Di Malaysia, portal MyHealth memberikan panduan am mengenai hubungan antara hutang dan kesihatan mental, tetapi masih ada ada banyak ruang untuk penambahbaikan bagi mencapai tahap garis panduan yang disebutkan di atas tadi.

Akhir kata

Ketua Pengarah Pertubuhan Kesihatan Sedunia (WHO) menyarankan negara-negara prihatin dan mengutamakan penyediaan yang mencukupi bagi menangani masalah  kesihatan mental dalam merangka respons terhadap pandemik Covid-19. Ini membuka peluang untuk kita memikirkan semula bagaimana kita mendekati isu-isu yang berkaitan dengan kesihatan mental. Pendekatan dan pola pemikiran berintegrasi perlu untuk menguruskan cabaran-cabaran ini. Kegagalan untuk mendekati kesihatan mental melalui pendekatan yang lebih bersepadu akan menyebabkan usaha – usaha di lakukan terperangkap dalam ‘gelembung’ yang berasingan, dan seterusnya tidak dapat memanfaatkan orang ramai.

We Need An Integrated Approach to Manage Financial Distress and Mental Health

Back in April this year, a month after the first Movement Control Order came into force, The Centre initiated a study to understand how the lockdown was affecting the mental well-being of ordinary Malaysians. Among the key findings, we saw (unsurprisingly) that those who reported decreased incomes were more likely to report feelings of depression, anxiety and stress than those who experienced no change or improvements in income.

Although Malaysia’s official unemployment rate is starting to show signs of improvement, the sense of financial stability on the ground is still fragile. With the end of the blanket loans moratorium coming up this 30th September, it is not a major stretch to say that the risk of household financial distress and the accompanying mental health effects will be high.

Research linking financial distress with mental health issues is well established, particularly from countries badly hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Given existing research as well as what we know of current economic conditions, how can we manage a potential impending crisis more proactively?

To deal with the intertwined issue of financial well-being and mental health, we propose a much more integrated approach in public outreach involving financial institutions and mental health services.

Downward Spiral

But first, a broader look.

The relationship between mental health and financial distress is mutually reinforcing. For instance, someone with high levels of debt could be susceptible to negative emotions like depression or anxiety which may, in turn, impair their ability to manage their debt effectively. The debt problem would then continue to mount, putting them at risk to even more severe negative emotions and the cycle goes on.

Worse yet, financial distress could further compound the illness of someone with existing mental health conditions, which often goes undiagnosed particularly amongst lower income groups. Research by the Mental Health Foundation UK shows that even during non-pandemic times, there is an increased risk of mental health issues the lower one’s socioeconomic standing. The jobs and debt fallout from a pandemic could well cause a clinical mental health crisis among financially vulnerable groups.

Mental health and financial issues do not exist in silos. An appropriate response must also recognise how the two are intertwined and build linkages between relevant channels and stakeholders.

Breaking Down the Silos

Currently, someone facing mental health issues may seek help from mental health helplines or professionals. Similarly, an individual undergoing financial distress may deal with their bank or other loan providers to resolve the issue; some may be referred to agencies such as AKPK for debt counselling. Many troubled individuals may not even be aware that the two issues could be linked and may only seek assistance for one problem, if at all.

We need measures that, firstly, increases public awareness of the relationship between financial distress and mental health. Apart from the benefit of increasing public awareness, it would also help to destigmatise the two problems and make it seem more acceptable for people to seek help.

Secondly, we need a system or network that allows for cross-referrals between relevant parts and actors in financial services with those in mental health services. Of course, loan officers should not be psychologists, or vice versa! The key point is to give timely guidance or helpful information at these common public touchpoints, where someone facing financial issues could be given the option of signing up for mental health assistance and vice versa.

The Social Synergy Programme (SSP), launched by Perkeso in 2018, is an example of how an integrated response can be structured. The program brings together a number of different parties – mostly government agencies – that work together under a ‘no-wrong-door’ approach. The programme allows for cross-referrals between parties to resolve various issues faced by the client (while still adhering to PDPA requirements). 

Longer Term: Shared Guidelines

While financial counselors are not mental health experts and vice versa, nonetheless there is space for knowledge-sharing and the development of shared guidelines so that frontliners in both sectors are more equipped to deal with the linkages and issues.

Such guidelines already exist in a number of countries, especially in Europe as a result of the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. The Money Advice Liaison Group in the UK has best practice guidelines for organisations and frontliners when dealing with consumers experiencing both mental health and debt difficulties. Mental Health First Aid Australia meanwhile provides separate guidelines for financial institution staff, accountants, financial counsellors and mental health professionals when dealing with individuals with mental health and financial issues.

In Malaysia, the MyHealth portal provides broad guidance on the link between debt and mental disturbance but there is space for much more to be developed.

Conclusion

The Director-General of the World Health Organization has called for significant investment into mental health as part of the response to the pandemic. This unprecedented moment should also give us the impetus to rethink how we approach issues interlinked with mental health. An integrative approach and mindset will be needed to manage these challenges, or there will be many more who fall through the silo-driven gaps.

Note: As part of our CSR efforts, we are supporting pilot projects that put in place more integrated approaches towards managing financial distress and mental health. If you would like to be a project partner, please contact us at editorial@centre.my.

5 Things We Learned From A Year of Think-Tanking

On 30th July last year, The Centre opened their virtual doors with the intention to be a think tank dedicated to researching policy issues from a centrist point of view. Twelve months, a change in government and a global pandemic later, our doors are still open and we stand by our founding objective more than ever (and even more virtually as we continue to observe social distancing SOPs).

It’s been a tumultuous year but it has also been a promising one for us. Response to the research, writing and policy positions we’ve put forward has been encouraging. We’ve been able to pursue interesting research questions within resource and data gathering constraints. We’ve even managed to have some fun along the way.

And so we’re beyond grateful and humbled for the many experiences we’ve had so far. Here are our top 5 learnings as a Malaysian start-up think tank during an immensely eventful year.

1: ‘How’ is sometimes a more important question than ‘what’.

It is really difficult to define what a think tank is, partly because so many different types of organisations fit the description. Some focus on primary research while some mainly do advocacy while others do some combination of the two plus other activities. 

We like On Think Tank’s take, which is that think tanks exist to influence policy. As a definition it’s perhaps overly simple but it does lead us to the more productive question of how best we can influence policy.

Given the focus of other think tanks as well as the composition of The Centre’s pioneer team of researchers, we decided to complement Malaysia’s policy ecosystem with a blend of survey-based research, textual & behavioural analysis and investigative journalism. The work should also be accessible, which is why we integrate illustrations, Instagram stories, quick polls, online calculators and other fun stuff.

2: Diversity is critical.

For a small team, The Centre’s full-time crew is quite diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and political leanings. This diversity is by design – without diversity, the work would definitely suffer from bias or ignorance.

Case in point: a stock image we published drew pointed criticism from some readers who felt that the photo maligned Malays. Ordinarily we would’ve caught it but some of our ‘sensitivity experts’ were busy that day and the rest of the team was blissfully unaware of the mini-bomb in our midst. Diversity, people! (and time management).

3: Making sure the work translates is tricky.

One of the things we wanted to do from the outset was to provide more Bahasa Malaysia content so that the discussion can transcend urban English-speaking bubbles. Making the material accessible for a BM audience however is not straightforward.

We’ve occasionally attracted criticism on the quality of our Bahasa Malaysia writing – and quite rightly so! Vocabulary can be an issue. Official translations as per Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka aren’t necessarily terms everyone is familiar with (perlindungan sosial, anyone?) and don’t always flow well in a piece. 

But more importantly, there is a significant difference in thinking and writing in English vs. in Bahasa Malaysia. There is the issue of nuance and sensibility that goes beyond just finding the right words. As we’re increasingly discovering, rather than translating from one language it is sometimes just better to write a fresh new piece in the intended language.

4: Influencing policy is hard.

The job isn’t done and dusted when your research report is ready and you’ve pressed publish. Rather, that’s when the hard work begins. It’s one thing to put your proposal out into the world, quite another to have the right people take notice. And even when the right people sit up and take notice, things change outside our control that can impact progress or the relevance of our work.

Influencing policy and effecting change is a marathon, not a sprint – you have to have persistence, always adapt and be in it for the long haul.

5: Asking the right questions is very hard.

Everything we do begins with a research question about a known problem or a challenge. In order to correctly grasp the nature of the problem however, we need to ask the right questions, which is easier said than done.

Before you can ask the right questions, you need to have a good understanding of the subject matter at hand. This requires innate curiosity and diligence of course, but it also requires an ability to be objective and non-partisan. At the same time, you also need to keep yourself in check so that you don’t go down research rabbit holes and get lost.

It’s a delicate balance and having colleagues that can challenge and probe your thinking is key (which is why diversity is crucial: see point 2).


So there you have it, the top 5 things we’ve learned in a year of think-tanking. We’ve got more exciting research coming up as we begin our second year. We thank you profusely for your continued support so far and we hope you stay tuned for more!

5 Pengajaran Daripada Setahun Sebagai Pusat Penyelidikan Bebas

Tanggal 30 Julai tahun lalu, The Centre secara maya telah memotong reben pelancaran dan memulakan usaha untuk menjadi pusat penyelidikan yang mengupas pelbagai isu dasar dengan pendekatan sentris. Setahun yang penuh peristiwa telah berlalu, di mana kita senegara menyaksikan pertukaran kerajaan dan pandemik dunia. Namun, pintu (maya) kami masih terbuka dan kami masih berpegang teguh pada matlamat asal kami – dengan penjarakan sosial yang diperlukan.

Dua belas bulan yang begitu menarik, tetapi tidak dapat dinafikan ia juga merupakan satu tahun yang menggalakkan untuk The Centre. Kami dapat melaksanakan beberapa tinjauan yang menghasilkan penemuan berguna, dalam lingkungan batasan-batasan sumber dan data yang biasa dihadapi para penyelidik. Sambutan terhadap hasil kajian, penulisan dan cadangan dasar The Centre juga rata-ratanya memberangsangkan. Antara hari yang tertekan dan penuh stress, ada juga hari yang seronok dan penuh dengan kepuasan kerja.

Oleh itu, kami amat bersyukur untuk segala pengalaman, baik pahit atau manis, sepanjang tahun pertama penubuhan The Centre. Di sini, kami kongsikan 5 pengajaran hasil setahun beroperasi sebagai sebuah pusat penyelidikan bebas.

1: ‘Bagaimana’ adalah soalan yang lebih penting daripada ‘apa’.

Apakah itu sebuah think tank? Soalan ini agak sukar dijawab, lebih-lebih lagi dalam Bahasa Malaysia di mana terjemahan yang tepat lagi memuaskan untuk frasa ini tidak wujud (kami memilih ‘pusat penyelidikan bebas’). Malah, soalan ini sukar dijawab dalam Bahasa Inggeris juga kerana pelbagai jenis organisasi memakai deskripsi think tank untuk menjenamakan pelbagai aktiviti, dari kajian ke kempen advokasi.

Kami cenderung kepada tafsiran On Think Tanks yang mencadangkan bahawa think tank adalah organisasi yang wujud untuk mempengaruhi dasar. Definisi ini mungkin terlalu mudah, tetapi ia membawa kepada soalan yang lebih produktif: bagaimana cara terbaik bagi mempengaruhi dasar?

Mengambil kira sumbangan think tank atau pusat penyelidikan yang lain di Malaysia, tambahan pula latar belakang serta kemahiran pasukan penyelidik The Centre sendiri, kami mengambil keputusan untuk menumpukan usaha kami kepada kajian berbentuk tinjauan atau survei, analisa teks dan tingkah laku, dan kewartawanan mendalam. Kami juga merasakan bahawa sebarang hasil kajian harus diterbitkan dalam bentuk yang mudah dibaca. Oleh itu, kami cuba sejauh mungkin untuk mengolah hasil iringan yang menarik seperti kartun ilustrasi, cebisan Instagram, tinjauan singkat di media sosial, kalkulator online dan banyak lagi.

2: Kepelbagaian adalah sangat penting.

Pasukan penyelidik The Centre sebenarnya agak kecil tetapi terdiri daripada pelbagai gender, bangsa dan haluan politik. Kepelbagaian ini bukanlah satu kebetulan. Untuk memastikan bahawa hasil kajian tidak terlalu memihak kepada sesuatu sudut pandangan, kami cuba menghimpunkan pasukan yang berlainan latar belakang dari hari pertama.

Sebagai contoh: salah satu gambar stok yang kami gunakan untuk karangan mengenai pelanggaran PKP telah menerima kritikan daripada beberapa pembaca yang merasakan bahawa gambar tersebut memperlekehkan orang Melayu. Kebiasaannya, kami agak berhati-hati dalam hal-hal ini tetapi malangnya, ‘pakar-pakar kepekaan budaya’ dalam pasukan kami sibuk dengan tugasan lain pada hari itu. Mereka yang lain pula benar-benar tidak menyedari bahawa gambar itu mampu menaikkan kemarahan sesetengah pembaca. Pokoknya, kepelbagaian itu penting (dan juga pengurusan masa).

3: Adakalanya, menterjemah tidak memadai.

Sejak pengasasan The Centre, salah satu matlamat kami adalah untuk menyediakan lebih banyak hasil kajian dan penulisan dalam Bahasa Malaysia supaya kesedaran dan perbualan tentang soal dasar melangkaui kumpulan-kumpulan yang aktif dalam Bahasa Inggeris. Walaubagaimanapun, penghasilan bahan dalam Bahasa Malaysia, lebih-lebih lagi bila diterjemah daripada Bahasa Inggeris, bukanlah usaha yang mudah.

Boleh dikatakan bahawa kami tidak lagi terkejut atau terguris bila menerima kritikan yang tajam atas mutu penulisan kami dalam Bahasa Malaysia – kami akui, ia wajar! Kata terjemahan rasmi bagi frasa-frasa tertentu, seperti yang terkandung dalam Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, adakalanya tidak diketahui atau digunakan dengan meluas (contohnya: bandingkan social protection dengan perlindungan sosial).

Tetapi isu yang lebih penting adalah perbezaan dalam cara fikiran apabila dizahirkan dalam Bahasa Malaysia berbanding Bahasa Inggeris. Ia bukan sahaja sekadar mencari perkataan yang sesuai, tetapi lebih kepada cara penghayatan dan seni komunikasi dalam bahasa itu sendiri. Seringkali kami terpaksa mengakui bahawa menterjemah dari satu bahasa ke bahasa yang lain tidak memadai dan apa yang diperlukan adalah penulisan semula, dengan mukasurat yang kosong, dalam bahasa yang dikehendaki.

4: Mempengaruhi dasar itu sukar.

Tahniah – setelah bertungkus lumus selama beberapa bulan, kajian anda telah disempurnakan dan laporan anda telah diterbitkan. Malangnya, ini tidak bermakna kerja anda sudah selesai, malah usaha yang sebenar baru bermula. Laporan anda perlu dibaca dan diterima oleh individu-individu yang berkepentingan, dan ini tidak boleh dijamin oleh sesiapa. Meskipun anda bernasib baik dan laporan anda mendapat perhatian pihak-pihak berkepentingan, peristiwa di luar kawalan masih boleh berlaku, seterusnya menggendalakan sebarang kemajuan yang telah tercapai.

Mempengaruhi dasar dan mengejar penambahbaikan adalah acara larian jarak jauh yang memerlukan stamina, kegigihan dan kesediaan untuk menyesuaikan diri dengan keadaan yang boleh berubah.

5: Mengolah soalan yang bernas adalah amat sukar.

Setiap usaha kajian bermula dengan soalan asas tentang sesuatu masalah atau cabaran yang mahu ditangani. Mengolah soalan asas yang bernas, iaitu soalan yang memahami sifat dan ciri-ciri sesuatu masalah atau cabaran, adalah penting tetapi sukar.

Untuk memahami sesuatu masalah atau cabaran dengan baik, seorang penyelidik perlu mempunyai rasa ingin tahu yang semula jadi, ketekunan dan juga kebolehan untuk menilai sesuatu perkara secara objektif dan tidak berpihak. Seorang penyelidik juga perlu berhati-hati supaya tidak mengejar sesuatu jalan fikiran dengan terlalu mendalam sehingga ‘sesat’ dan matlamat kajian asal dikelirukan.

Oleh sebab itu, mempunyai rakan sekerja yang boleh menyoal dan mencabar jalan fikiran dengan cara yang membina adalah sangat penting (kepelbagaian lagi: rujuk pengajaran nombor 2).


Inilah 5 pengajaran utama bagi kami di The Centre daripada setahun sebagai pusat penyelidikan bebas di Malaysia. Terima kasih kepada semua pembaca atas segala sokongan yang diberikan. Nantikan kajian kami yang akan datang!