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Ties that do not bind

The following article is the result of my interview with Distinguished Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, founding director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies (or KITA) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.


The tourism industry has managed to flaunt Malaysia’s diverse cultural life. But this diversity has never been really captured research-wise, writes FAEZAH ISMAIL

Shamsul Amri Baharuddin

The last bibliography on ethnic relations in Malaysia was published in 1992.  The compiler was Tan Chee-Beng and the title, appropriately enough, is the Bibliography on Ethnic Relations with Special Reference to Malaysia and Singapore.

Regrettably, an updated version has yet to appear.   “Bibliographies tell a lot about the state of a discipline at a point in time. Can you imagine the level of our knowledge about ethnic relations in this country?” asks Distinguished Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who is the founding director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies (or KITA) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Malaysia’s inability to bring up to date an important text such as this one  suggests “a deep-rooted knowledge problem”,  says Shamsul, who is also the chief editor of the ethnic relations module.  And a thorough knowledge of Malaysia’s ethnic diversity is sorely needed to deal with tensions that occur every now and again, he adds.

The failure to update the 1992 ethnic relations bibliography and the frictions that arise as a result of differences in a plural society — the Interlok dispute and the hair-trimming incident involving a Sikh teenager being the most recent — are a sad commentary not only on the state but also the study of ethnic relations in Malaysia.

The clashes “will continue because we do not seriously prepare ourselves to deal with them,” says Shamsul.  “When a conflict emerges we make a lot of noise hoping that it will go away but it will persist unless we choose a mature approach to ethnic tensions.”

The quarrel about the move to adopt Datuk Abdullah Hussain’s novel Interlok as a Malay literature text for fifth-formers, or any others of that ilk, illustrates the “stable tension” theory that Shamsul posits.  The theory holds that ethnic tensions will take place from time to time but they are manageable provided Malaysians take measures to ease them.

For Shamsul the first step towards becoming “mature” is to have a sound grasp of the issues in question. “We cannot make sense of the situation without deep and researched-based knowledge. We cannot survive on racial prejudices and communal stereotypes,” says Shamsul.  Malaysians tend to view their “other” through racial prejudices, ethnic slurs and stereotypical images of the other’s behaviour.

How do you deal with disagreements among the different ethnic groups in Malaysia?  “You are asking me a question about a disease that has not been adequately studied. We can only make an accurate diagnosis after a careful study of the malady.  “Have we thought of the tools for finding solutions to the problem?  We have to develop a plan to deal with this because it keeps returning.”

KITA is ideally placed to craft a framework for problem-solving. One of its projects in 2009 was the Monitoring Ethnic Relations System (MESRA for short) which acts as an early warning system on issues linked to ethnic relations in Malaysia.

The Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which produces the annual Global Peace Index (GPI),  is interested in the scheme.  The two institutes will sign a memorandum of understanding soon to collaborate on endorsing a part of MESRA as a country-based peace index to complement the GPI.

KITA  also hopes to study Malaysia’s intellectual history besides finding out how “mundane activities” such as inter-racial and inter-ethnic marriages play their roles in fostering national unity.

It wants to do more and Shamsul is brimming with ideas.  But KITA  faces financial and manpower constraints.  “We are only a small institute in UKM. If the government is really interested in resolving ethnic conflicts, it should elevate KITA to a national body.

“We have lots of ideas but we need dedicated people and generous funds to do our work. If we do not invest time and money in this, the psychosocial traumatic impact and the  economic cost of worsening conditions are too awful to contemplate.”

A discussion on ethnic relations raises many important questions but there are no easy answers.  In the case of the Interlok squabble, it has nothing to do with the novel, says Shamsul, who is a member of an independent panel to amend Abdullah’s work.   Instead, it has to do with the “dividedness” of Malaysia’s ethnic groups, as Shamsul puts it.

“We are not a homogeneous society. The Malays are one group of people but there are many types of Malays, and the same is true of the others.”  Even among the Indian community there is no consensus on the choice of Interlok as a text for the literature part of the subject Bahasa Malaysia for fifth-formers.  Some are against it while others are not.

Similarly, every Malaysian has his or her own vision of national identity “based on a particular ideological framework” and the various attempts to construct this from the perspective of each public interest group represent “many nations-of-intent”.

The non-Malays prefer a definition that accords the “culture of each ethnic group in Malaysia a position equal to that of the Bumiputera,” writes Shamsul in his essay “Nations-of-Intent in Malaysia”.  The suggestion that “Chinese language and rituals be an integral part of the national identity” is a case in point.

Interestingly, the tourism industry has managed to explain Malaysia’s ethnic and cultural diversity through traditional dances, folk songs and construction of ancestral villages, among others.  And the main beneficiaries of this are the tourists.

“But this diversity has never been really captured research-wise,” says Shamsul, who recently examined a PhD thesis on the Indians in Malaysia.  The postgraduate had assumed that the divisions within Malaysian society are straightforward and did not show any understanding of the “dividedness” that exists in each community.

“My comment was to rewrite the thesis. For a PhD candidate not to have recognised the diverse dissenting voices in each ethnic group does not augur well for the future of ethnic relations in Malaysia.”

Click here for the original article.

It isn’t child labour when …

There is a clear line between engaging young workers to do light duties and exploiting them.

Youngsters who help their parents to manage makeshift stalls at the side of roads or night markets are learning about the real world and in the process acquire skills which might come in handy.

The abuse begins when they become the sole breadwinners or carry out “difficult, dangerous and dirty” (3D) jobs to supplement their family incomes.

That is the message from union leaders and the head of an employers’ organisation in Peninsular Malaysia.

The issue of working youngsters came under the spotlight when Parliament recently passed the Bill of the Children and Young Persons (Employment) (Amendment) Act 2010 which seeks to change the current legislation, 13 years after Malaysia ratified the Minimum Age Convention (C138) in 1997.

Malaysia’s Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act 1966 (CYP Act) — which only applies to the states of Peninsular Malaysia — allows children and young persons to do “light work” in family enterprises and licensed public entertainment establishments besides engaging in approved internships and apprenticeships and government-sponsored work.

The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak have similar Acts.

Some economic activities performed by children and young persons are good for their development, says A. Navamukundan, National Union of Plantation Workers’ national executive secretary, who speaks from personal knowledge.

He fondly recalls his childhood on a rubber estate in Negeri Sembilan during the 1950s.

Households on the estate had to grow their own food under the British colonial government’s food control policy, a measure adopted during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

As children Navamukundan and his siblings helped their parents to raise cattle and poultry as well as tend the family’s vegetable plot.

“Was there some value of work? Yes, everybody in the household contributed to the food supply. The combined cash income that our parents got as plantation workers went towards paying our education. Our parents used their wages to send us to an English school and in those days that was a big deal,” says Navamukundan.

Navamukundan and his siblings (“there were 10 of us”) did not feel that their parents had taken advantage of them.

In fact, they learned a lot about agriculture and the benefit of staying together.

He describes the experience as “family solidarity” and that was “our strength”.

And this cooperation was not peculiar to Navamukundan’s family. His neighbours also worked together towards a shared aim.

However, this “quality of family solidarity no longer exists in Malaysian society and young people today are not aware of the realities of life” of the time.

Malaysian Employers Federation president Shamsuddin Bardan makes a similar point when he refutes the suggestion that child labour exists in Peninsular Malaysia.

Young Malaysians who lend a helping hand to their parents are doing just that — assisting the family to manage an entrepreneurial activity for the benefit of everyone.

“It is not child labour because the parents are not making use of their children for profit. It is for the family,” Shamsuddin says.

“They are training the young ones to understand the world of work and the value of hard work. The whole purpose of the exercise is to turn their children into better persons.”

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress has no problem with children working but they should not do it at the cost of their education.

“Parents should not tell their children to drop out of school to help them in the plantations, for example,” says MTUC secretary general G. Rajasekaran.

“By taking them to the plantations they are actually encouraging their children to stop schooling at the age of 10 or 12. Parents should think about their children’s future,” he says.

Rajasekaran, Navamukundan and Shamsuddin, are united in their observation that Peninsular Malaysia does not have the kind of child labour situation seen in other countries.

Just because there are no reported cases of child labour in Peninsular Malaysia doesn’t mean we are free of it.

It may well be that labour inspections have not been thorough.

See also When work is child’s play.

When work is child’s play


Fayarika Yarman and brother Muhd Faiz enjoy helping with sales at the night market.

Malaysia has taken steps to further ensure that children and young persons who enter the job market are safe from abuses. FAEZAH ISMAIL reports on the move to modify the Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act 1966.


Student Fayarika Yarman has the makings of a first-rate entrepreneur.

She smiles easily and interacts well with customers who visit her father’s stall — which offers colourful scarves, shawls and headgear for the fashion-conscious Muslim women — at the Jelatek night market which is close to the city centre in Kuala Lumpur.

At first glance Fayarika, 16, looks like the booth owner.

You know she is not when her father returns to the accessories stand with soft drinks for her and younger brother Muhd Faiz, 11, who also attends to customers.

Both teenagers love school — Fayarika is in Form Four while Muhd Faiz is in Year 5 — and they only help with sales at the weekend and on school holidays.

Under Malaysia’s Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act 1966 (CYP Act) the siblings are not committing an offence.

Indeed, the law allows children and young persons to do “light work” in family enterprises and licensed public entertainment establishments besides engaging in approved internships and apprenticeships and government-sponsored work.

The CYP Act, which only applies to the states of Peninsular Malaysia, also specifies the number and duration of working days and claims to protect children and young persons from the so-called 3D — “dangerous, difficult and dirty” — jobs.

The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak have similar Acts.

Malaysia has taken steps to further ensure that children and young persons who enter the job market are safe from abuses.

Parliament recently passed the Bill of the Children and Young Persons (Employment) (Amendment) Act 2010 which seeks to modify the current legislation.

The main aim of the Bill is to raise the legal working age of children from 14 to 15 and that of young persons from 16 to 18 consistent with the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (C138) which Malaysia ratified in 1997.

The changes also include “a new definition of light work” and a prohibition against employing children and young persons to carry out “hazardous work”.

“Light work” means “any work performed by a worker” which entails “moderate movement of the arm, leg and trunk (while sitting) and “mostly moderate movement of the arm (while standing)”.

The revision attempts to clarify the current description which reads “employment involving light work suitable to his capacity”  in any family commercial undertaking.

“Hazardous work” — which means any work that has been assessed as such “by a competent authority on safety and health determined by the Minister” — will be out of the question for children and young persons when amendments to the CYP Act take effect.

Why amend the CYP Act now, 13 years after Malaysia signed Convention 138?

“Our labour laws are the creatures of ILO (International Labour Organisation) conventions,” says a Labour Department official, who requested for anonymity.

“The current review does not indicate that child labour has reached an alarming level. It is simply a proactive approach to prevent potential problems and conform with Convention 138,” he adds.

He concedes that the ILO would bring the topic up for discussion at every meeting attended by the Minister and senior officials.

From the Human Resources Ministry’s point of view the management of foreign workers is more pressing than child labour.

“However, there are no reported cases of foreign workers’ children being employed or exploited by employers here,” says the official.

Malaysian Trades Union Congress secretary general G. Rajasekaran welcomes the reforms and says that children should be studying instead of working.

“Our education is free. Children should be in school, however poor the family,” says Rajasekaran.

“We have an issue with the amendments,” says Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan, who is particularly upset that the legal working age of young persons will be 18 instead of 16.

More than 400,000 young Malaysians leave school every year at the age of 17 after taking the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination.

Some 107,000 SPM school-leavers will join the labour force as unskilled workers such as production hands, shop assistants and cleaners.

The rest will continue their education at tertiary institutions or at skills training programmes organised by the government.

What does the future hold for those who are not allowed to work when the reforms become law?

Shamsuddin fears that they “will become a burden to society” and urges the government “to take care of this group of SPM school-leavers”.

Does Malaysia have the infrastructure necessary to deal with this?

Shamsuddin suggests mandatory skills training for this cohort but admits that it may be difficult to implement.

Would the youngsters be interested in the idea? And would education providers be able to absorb this influx of learners?

The potential dilemma identified by Shamsuddin is like the current jobless graduates problem.

Government agencies have designed diverse projects which hope to reskill thousands of unemployed graduates.

Some 47,000 young workers are registered with the government and they are mostly found in family owned concerns.

Rajasekaran reveals that “there are 70,000 working children in Malaysia including those who help their parents after school to manage makeshift stalls at the side of roads and at night markets”.

Labour Department officials refute the figure, which Rajasekaran says came from the Human Resources Ministry, and insist that their records of the last 10 years do not show complaints about employers who exploit child workers in Peninsular Malaysia.

“The condition in Sarawak is similar to that of the peninsula but Sabah is another story where huge numbers of undocumented workers complicate the issue.”

Not all economic activity performed by children is necessarily bad, says National Union of Plantation Workers national executive secretary A. Navamukundan.

Fayarika, who wants to venture into business, and Muhd Faiz, who dreams of being an astronaut, agree.

Working at the night market allows them to acquire skills — such as numeracy and enhancing English proficiency when they serve foreigners — which will stand them in good stead when it comes to finding jobs in the future.

NOTE: This article also appeared  in Learning Curve, New Sunday Times on Dec 12, 2010. ( http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/ISSUES_Whenworkischild__8217_splay/Article/)

Muhd Faiz attending to a customer at his father's accessories stand.

Pakistanis need jobs

Floods have threatened or destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people in Pakistan, states the International Labour Office in a recent Press release.

The worst ever floods in the history of Pakistan has resulted in widespread destruction.

It is now necessary to create productive and labour intensive jobs to lift millions of people out of the poverty that has been aggravated by flood damage.

Read more here.

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