Kopi Kluang: PTPTN – Making the Hard Decisions

To say that the past couple of years have been interesting for King Chai would be an understatement. From being oppressed as part of the UKM4, which led to acquaintance with and submission to His Supreme Eminenceness Lord Bobo, then shufflin’ with the LoyarBurokkers, to movin’ with UndiMsia!, litigating for the abolishment of the UUCA, and even getting a Man of the Year award. Life has certainly changed, but there’s still nothing he enjoys more than secawan Kopi Kluang. “Kopi Kluang” is his regular column on the most awesome blawg.

Are politicians today able to call a spade a spade by making the difficult yet unpopular decision regarding PTPTN?

I have recently picked up a new habit of buying DVDs to catch up on the movies that I missed in cinemas. One such movie is The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as an elderly Margaret Thatcher struggling through life after politics, battling dementia and constant hallucinations of her late husband Denis Thatcher, played by Jim Broadbent. The film is intertwined with flashbacks from her past, during her formative and early political years and eventual rise in British politics, and present challenges in dealing with her declining health and relationships with others.

Meryl Streep as the Iron Lady of British politics.

The film received mixed reviews from movie-goers because of how Margaret Thatcher was portrayed by the film producers. Roger Ebert, a famous film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film two stars out of four, praising Streep’s performance but lamented that “she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go” in a film that cannot decide what it wants to say about Thatcher. That is a very apt description of the movie, especially when the exploits and difficult decisions tackled by the Iron Lady of British politics is juxtaposed with scenes of an ailing woman suffering from dementia and hallucinations, born out of suppressed emotions for her late husband.

I particularly enjoyed parts of the movie where a young Margaret would fight against all odds to climb the ‘greasy pole’ of politics to be the first woman to lead a major political party in United Kingdom and eventually the Prime Minister after winning the 1979 elections. She inherited a country that she perceived to be in a state of ‘precipitous national decline’ and had to make the most difficult of decisions during her time as Prime Minister, for e.g. the economic recession and high unemployment in 1979 until economic recovery and the 1982 Falklands War.

For me, one of the most memorable quotes from the movie (though I’m heavily paraphrasing it here) has to be: “Do you know what the problem with people is in this age? It’s that they only care about how others feel, and never care about what they are thinking or ideas”.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.

In spite of all the massive protests, further austerity measures were still proposed by her as ‘medicine’ needed by the ‘patient’ to pull its economic out of recession and further decline. When some of her advisors protested against an unpopular budget and fierce spending cuts, she simply pointed out that they may just be afraid of losing their jobs and only cared about winning the polls for the party.

It seems no one has the courage to do what is right and to take unpopular measures that are required to fix the problems.

Anti Poll Tax Protest in 1990.

I think the challenges faced by Margaret Thatcher and her government in face of declining public support are very much similar to the challenges faced by our politicians today, in Malaysia. Perhaps not the exact same set of problems but much of the values and premise of the problems remain the same.

Just go through today’s newspapers or online news portals, you’ll find news of politicians promising heaven and earth, moons and stars to win public support in the coming 13th General Election, which will be called any moment now.

Anti Poll Tax Protest in 1990.

Recalling what she said in the movie, many of us today cared more of how others would feel by the decisions that we make rather than actually putting priority and importance to good ideas and solutions. No longer are politicians concerned with making the right decisions, but instead are more concerned with earning popular support with populist policies. Often times, good medicine is hard to swallow. What the patient thinks would be good may not necessarily be the best medicine.

Austerity measures, subsidy cuts, public spending cuts, rising of taxes and social welfare cuts are undoubtedly unpopular. But often times, those are the solutions needed to keep a country afloat in the midst of economic uncertainties. Governments forced to make these unpopular decisions often suffer the brunt of the public for not making popular decisions and not taking the fastest and least painful solution.

Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional (PTPTN)

Recent calls from students to abolish the entire PTPTN scheme by writing off all the loans taken out by students to pursue their tertiary education has politicians split along partisan lines. With Pakatan Rakyat championing the issue by promising the dismantling of the entire scheme and making all borrowers of the fund debt-free, the Barisan National government on the other hand is coming up with reasons as to why an extremely unsustainable proposal like this cannot be fulfilled.

In fact, roundtables and discussions were conducted by young political leaders from both political parties to gather views from the students themselves in order to tackle this hot potato of an issue.

Meja Bulat PTPTN Pemuda UMNO.

Personally, I disagree with dismantling the fund entirely simply because that is not the only solution available. However, I acknowledge that there are students who are unable to afford a salary high enough to pay off their loans upon graduation, especially in today’s competitive job market. (Note: I’m not even going to bother addressing students who can pay, but just don’t want to pay. Wankers, pay your damn loans. Don’t deprive others the opportunity to study.)

Let’s first examine some of the problems and complaints lodged by students, especially when it comes to paying off one’s PTPTN loan:

  1. The administrative fee can be unnecessarily high, even with the interest rate set at 1% per annum. I have some friends who showed me the letter that they received from PTPTN informing them the total amount that they have to pay back to the fund and the administrative fees for some of them could hit up to a few thousand Ringgit!
  2. The increment of monthly minimum amount needed to be paid to the fund every year is too high and does not progress in relation to the rise of one’s salary. If I remember correctly, the monthly repayment of the loan starts immediately upon graduation, with a minimum amount of RM50/month. Granted it’s not a large sum of money for some, but it is still a tidy sum of money for others.
  3. Lack of job opportunities. The job market is extremely competitive, especially with new graduates going after only jobs that they like and meet their expectations in terms job roles and pay. There may be a lot of other vacant jobs in the market but most are not taken due to low pay and different expectations.
  4. Being burdened with a loan immediately upon graduation. Most new graduates today cannot afford to buy a car or a place of their own immediately after graduation, what more being burdened with a loan that will take them many years to repay.

In much of the debate revolving around the issue of whether the government can or should write off all the loans taken out by the borrowers to pursue their tertiary education, many of us tend to forget the responsibility of the borrowers to repay loans that they have taken out. If everyone decided to just take out loans from the fund without repaying those loans, or even dismantling the fund entirely, how will future generations of students pursue their studies if they cannot afford it?


There are also suggestions from Pakatan Rakyat to make tertiary education for all public universities free but I think this is a separate issue that must be discussed separately from the issue concerning PTPTN loans. To discuss them together would be diverting the issues entirely because free tertiary education has a different set of challenges and implications compared to deciding on the future of PTPTN. I believe there are solutions to this issue, without resorting to populist promises that do not cultivate good financial planning and responsibility.

If we look at the problems put forward by students above concerning the loan, a holistic solution has to be adopted by the government to take into the account of the students’ welfare and at the same time providing opportunities for those who would need the assistance of this scheme to pursue their tertiary education.

Anti-PTPTN demonstration on 14 April 2012.

After a brief discussion with my housemates and further on with some friends and colleagues, one logical and actually practical solution that the government can take is to actually reduce the interest rate and administrative fees further, so that the amount that the students would have to pay would be lesser (and thus, hopefully less burdensome, especially with a few thousands shaved off the loan). Aside from that, the government can also propose to make the repayment scheme a lot more lax and less strenuous to the new graduates, by reducing the rate of increasing progression for monthly minimum amount to repay the loans.

Would those suggestions actually solve this problem or the issue entirely? I don’t know, but if it can help to reduce the new graduates’ burdens but at the same time do not bankrupt the country by writing off billions of Ringgit of loans, it’s probably worth a try.

Anti-PTPTN demonstration on 14 April 2012.

Obviously it will be very unpopular for the government to come out to say “NO” to writing off loans for all the students who borrowed money from the fund but it will be a hard decision that has to be made, considering all the factors and implications involved in this issue. The country’s economic and financial stability must also be taken into account when it comes to proposing a solution to solve the problems faced by the students.

Are there any politicians in this country who are brave enough to stand up and call a spade a spade by making unpopular and difficult decisions?

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King Chai is a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing an MSc. in Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Contrary to popular belief, he is still mindlessly a loyal minion of His Supreme Eminenceness Lord Bobo Barnabus, The Wonder Typewriting Monkey, who exists solely in cyberspace and is the simian behind LoyarBurok.com. King Chai is also one of the UKM4 and tweets at @woonkingchai.

Posted on 18 April 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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