Foong Li Mei brings you another edition of REFSA Rojak – a weekly take on the goings-on in Malaysia by Research for Social Advancement (REFSA). REFSA Rojak – “trawl the newsflow, cut to the core and focus on the really pertinent. Full of flavour, lots of crunch, this is the concise snapshot to help Malaysians keep abreast of the issues of the day.”

Rights with reins

One small step to protection of human rights; one giant leap to justify its abuse – that is how the recently-adopted ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) is seen by 64 activist organisations who have condemned it outright. The document was chastised for flying in the face of “the international consensus on human rights principles that have been in place for more than six decades”.

The declaration begins with the principle that “All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, but specified that these rights should be “considered in the regional and national context”.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) pointed out that this is in contrast with Section 5 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which states that it is the duty of states to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. While it notes the significance of AHRD’s general principles, Suhakam is disappointed that there was limited transparency and consultation with stakeholders when the declaration was drafted.

Taking a more critical stand was Human Rights Watch, which bluntly called AHRD a “public relations game”, as it opens up loopholes for countries to go against the declaration under the pretext of conforming to national interests. Malaysia, for example, had fought to ensure that AHRD contained no reference to gay rights.

Our country has a grimy track record in throwing human rights out of the window in the name of ‘national interest’. We witnessed the brutal crackdown on Bersih marchers rallying for clean and fair elections, the hasty passing of a law that restricts public assembly, the amendment of the Evidence Act that presumes internet users’ guilt for any controversial content published under their accounts, the deportation of a Saudi journalist seeking asylum from a potential death sentence back home, and the list goes on.

UK-based Equal Rights Trust’s joint research with Tenaganita has shown indigenous groups bearing the brunt of rampant discrimination in terms of socio-economic and political rights. Malaysia also sits at the bottom of the rankings among ASEAN, OIC, NAM, Commonwealth and UN member nations where rights for women, children and the disabled are concerned.

Other ASEAN countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam are also under scrutiny for severe breaching of human rights. The meaning of ‘national context’ is usually determined by the powers that be. Human rights cannot be subject to discretion of states; this is akin to freeing a prisoner and then handing the key to the person who demanded his captivity in the first place. Human rights with reins attached are hardly any rights at all.

PTPTN’s bumpy road to debt recovery

Our Prime Minister had insisted in his Budget 2013 speech that PTPTN loans must be repaid, so as to not rob “the rights of future students to access financing”. However, it seems that PTPTN itself has thrown  aspiring graduates’ hopes down the abyss.

On top of PTPTN’s already wobbling finances, hope seems bleak for the agency to retrieve the unpaid student debts, as the data sitting in its Education Loan Management System (ELMAS) is alleged to be severely outdated. According to MalaysiaKini , PTPTN can no longer trace many of the recipients of the RM45.41 billion worth of loans.

PTPTN tried to replace the flawed ELMAS by calling for tender for a new system. The Finance Ministry subsidiary Prokhas Sdn Bhd abruptly stepped in but it offered an even messier solution, apparently.

Prokhas was subsequently ejected for its failure but not before being paid RM 1.5 million. PTPTN later detoured and used the flawed ELMAS again – the agency paid the system’s developer another RM26 million to fix the obsolete Prokhas system and build a new ELMAS.

Even so, the current repayment rate of PTPTN stands at 49 percent, with RM7.83 billion student debts still unpaid. The 2011 Auditor-General Report revealed that PTPTN took a  whopping RM20 billion federal loan, painting a worrying picture of its debt recollection rate.  Despite that, PTPTN is adamant about collecting its dues “the nice way” for now.

It seems that the vehicle for higher education funding needs an overhaul. As many car owners would know, sometimes maintaining a beat-up junk is more expensive than replacing it. Instead of pouring more resources into righting the wrongs in PTPTN, perhaps exploring a new and improved financial aid system for students is due?

Walking the talk

With its talks falling upon deaf ears, the anti-Lynas movement walks – all 300 km of it. The Himpunan Hijau marchers, including senior citizens, pledged to leg it all the way from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur in 14 days to protest against the controversial rare earth processing plant. Set to reach Dataran Merdeka on Sunday (25 November), the group plans to camp at the iconic square and wait for the Prime Minister and MPs to meet them the next morning.

In a moving account on the state-crossing march, participant Boon Kia Meng shared how Malaysians of all ages, from children to the elderly, had worked together to support and sustain one another. He said that their journey “epitomises what has been truly essential in any democratic movement for bringing real social change: the twin values of self-organisation and mutual aid”.

Would their efforts be in vain, though? Lynas’ first shipment of rare earth has arrived in Kuantan, and its operation is expected to kick off in a few days.

Time is ticking. Folks in and around Kuala Lumpur are encouraged to meet and join the green marchers as they arrive at the Gombak toll plaza at 2pm tomorrow (24 November), and also to camp with them at Dataran Merdeka. Lend a leg to the final lap of their journey to hold Putrajaya’s “people-first” promise accountable!

Why ‘Rojak’? Disparate flavours and textures come together in a harmonious mix to make this delicious but underrated concoction. Our Rojak weekly is much like this mix, making sense of the noise of daily newsflow and politicking.

It is also our ultimate dream that our multi-ethnic melange of communities can be made richer within the unique ‘sauce’ that is Malaysia. Let’s take pride in the ‘rojakness’ of our nation!

[Pic credit – TheGiantVermin / Creative Commons]

Click here for previous issues of REFSA Rojak.

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REFSA is an independent, not-for-profit research institute providing relevant and reliable information on social, economic and political issues affecting Malaysians with the aim of promoting open and constructive...

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