By Tan Mei Kuan
Ipoh Echo had an exclusive one-on-one with newly-minted Human Resources Minister, M. Kulasegaran who in spite of his very heavy schedule took the time to come to the Ipoh Echo office on Sunday, June 3 to speak to us.
Kulasegaran (more fondly, Kula) was called to the English Bar in July 1982 by the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn. Upon his return, he was admitted and enrolled as an Advocate and Solicitor of the High Court in Malaya in 1983.
“First, let me thank Ipoh Echo for inviting me. I’ve been very fond of Ipoh Echo from day one. I was an Ipoh City Councillor in 2008. In my speeches at the council I often asked that Ipoh Echo be adopted as the council’s paper. We should promote our own indigenous product. I’m pleased that the community newspaper has survived for so long despite its many challenges. It’s always a pleasure to read Ipoh Echo,” he said before the start of the noon tete-a-tete.
“Let me just start off by saying that this is the ministry I specifically asked for. I told the Prime Minister and my party (DAP) that if I were appointed a minister, I wanted this portfolio because it’s nearest to my heart. I feel very strongly that we can achieve quite a bit for the B40 (bottom 40 percent) and below, namely families that earn RM3900 and below. This is either the lower income group or the hard-core poor. The bulk of Malaysians are within this category,” he highlighted.
Local Boy Makes Good
Following are questions posed and Kula’s answers:
Ipoh Echo: Can you give a general overview of the labour situation, regarding both local and foreign workers?
Kula: All this while there seems to be no coherent and consistent policy on foreign labour. The primary importance of our labour, our people, has been overlooked. The objective of the growth and empowerment of our people is secondary. The primacy of the previous government’s policies has been to bring in foreigners purely to make money and to fill up as many jobs as possible. Filling up jobs is most welcome but at the same time, preference should be given to Malaysians. Malaysian workers must come first, there is no compromise.
I am not at any time saying foreign workers should be deported immediately, no. Many Malaysians don’t like to take the 3D (dangerous, dirty, difficult) jobs. Even then, why in other parts of the world like Australia and New Zealand, people can do such jobs?
Basically, it’s the quantum of salary/income. I’ve already asked the policy division of my ministry to look into this. In regard to foreign workers, we are going to reduce, if not stop, taking foreign workers unless there is an absolute necessity. We agree in some plantation industries deep in the jungle, we need these foreign workers. But from the news and reports that I came across, we have more than enough.
Ipoh Echo: How did we reach such a staggering figure of millions of undocumented labour?
Kula: By the very casual attitude of our border people over the time. First and foremost, control of our borders should be tightened and strengthened. Bringing in workers by middlemen should also stop.
Ipoh Echo: Regarding the 1.5 million Bangladeshi nationals that had registered under former DPM Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, can you enlighten us on that?
Kula: Foremost, I’m disappointed with the previous government. The approval for foreign labour was taken and parked in his ministry. Zahid and the former minister were supposed to meet and resolve the matter. Although they had an understanding, they had zero meeting. Nothing was discussed as to how to facilitate, streamline, synchronise the whole intake and all that. That’s a colossal failure. It’s basically Umno imposing itself on other parties.
Ipoh Echo: Is the agreement still on?
Kula: The agreement is still on. We’ll review the agreement and, if necessary, we’ll cancel it entirely.
Ipoh Echo: How is the ministry going to tackle the scams in which foreign workers are falling for (human trafficking, etc.)?
Kula: I’ve been in my ministry only about two weeks. There is no denial there is a colossal failure on the enforcement. I’ve told the ministry: we must be able to work overtime, at night, on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. And get moving fast. I’ve also told them I don’t want to have meetings during office hours as far as possible. It should be after office hours so that it doesn’t disrupt the existing mechanism.
Ipoh Echo: How effective are the state labour department and other down-liners?
Kula: The enforcement is very, very relaxed. I’ll go around the country unannounced to check on vocational institutes, etc. I’ve requested for immediate interim reports on enforcement actions such as how many cases are taken to court and how many people are being prosecuted. Once enforcement takes place, other things fall into place.
Ipoh Echo: On the brain drain situation, how is the ministry going to retain local talents?
Kula: It was done by Talent Corporation earlier. We must get back to basics by empowering and encouraging our people to stay back in our country. Some people couldn’t get a scholarship to study and they leave the country. It’s a sad scenario. We should encourage these people to come back. The human resource pool that we have, there must be an opening to encourage and give them that liberty to do what they want.
I’ve heard from some people that their children are coming back after this new government came to power. This is very heartening. There’s a glimmer of hope. This great country of ours has an abundance of resources. Why should our youngsters not enjoy them and make Malaysia great again? We are 60 years late but that doesn’t matter.
Ipoh Echo: On the new Employment Insurance Scheme (EIS), how does it work?
Kula: When somebody is retrenched, the government has some money to be given to that person for the first three months for him/her to see through those trying months. A lot of Malaysians don’t realise that they’re living beyond their means thus when they lose their jobs they don’t know how to sustain themselves. We want to cushion it. At the same time, we have JobsMalaysia which will find jobs for them.
Ipoh Echo: What about the Skim Latihan 1Malaysia (SL1M) programme?
Kula: We are going to review it. The reason being is to avoid overlapping. You’ve heard SPAD. There must be synchronisation of things to cut cost and to deliver to the people. That should be the priority.
Ipoh Echo: Regarding the rehiring programme for illegal foreign workers, which will end next month, as announced by Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, what is your ministry’s role here?
Kula: We are discussing with the Ministry of Home Affairs to have a win-win situation. We don’t want to upset the present worker-employer relationship in the industry. We are giving them some breathing space to rehire, etc. but there must be a cut-off period to encourage more Malaysians to work.
One of the things we aspire to is that every Malaysian in this country will be covered by SOCSO. One of the backbones of Malaysia is women and housewives, yet they don’t have that coverage. My ministry is talking with the Finance Ministry to reach out to 1.2 million housewives because without them, there is no peace in our working places. Our mothers and sisters at home contribute as much as our fathers and brothers or more.
Ipoh Echo: What are your ministry’s future plans?
Kula: If you look at the Buku Harapan, there is one chapter on equal opportunity commission to enable workers to get the job they have been denied. It’s quite prevalent in most western countries. We want to establish that department to assist these kinds of people.
The second thing is on industrial relations. When I took over two weeks ago, there were 1600 outstanding cases for referral to the courts. I propose that this referral power be taken away from the minister. Ministers need not be judge, jury and prosecutor. I want to abolish that portfolio and give that right to the worker to go direct to the industrial court so that there will be speedy disposal. There must be more freedom for workers. This is one of the things I want to achieve.
My immediate project is, after Raya I’ll take the staff from the labour and SOCSO departments to visit markets like I frequently do. Over the last 20 years I’ve been going to the markets on weekends to meet people. I found nearly 70 percent of problems are either related to the labour office or SOCSO department. I want to do a trial in Ipoh first. Once it picks up, I’ll have the department extended to all the 222 constituencies in the country so that they can be people-friendly.
Ipoh Echo: Outside of your responsibility as a minister, what is the latest on Indira Gandhi’s case?
Kula: As a lawyer until two weeks ago (once you become a minister, you cannot practise), we have won all the orders. We are waiting, finally, for the police to locate the child because there is an order from court and to arrest the husband because he is in contempt by not coming to court.
I also encourage a lot of Malaysian lawyers to do more pro bono cases because that’s part of their social responsibility. We must bring equality to everybody.
Ipoh Echo: Expectations of Malaysians are sky high. So how is PH going to sustain itself in the next five years?
Kula: One of the promises that DAP has made is ministers, MPs, state assemblymen, councillors and party chairmen should not accept honorific awards such as datukship from states and federal. Thus you see the same Kula for the next five years. We’re not allowed to take or apply for an inch of land from the government. We’re not allowed to get involved in any business deals with the government. And we’re required to declare our assets. I got no hesitation about that.
I’m happy that the expectations of the rakyat are very high. Please do your duty and keep us on our toes. My ministry’s doors are always open. I’m just an ordinary Kula who visits markets every Saturday and Sunday.
Above all, our lifestyles don’t change, we must be as humble as possible and reach out to the rakyat.
Ipoh Echo: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Kula: I was born in an estate, son of a rubber tapper. We had a very tough time. We didn’t have water and electricity for the first ten years. I’m the eighth out of nine children. My late mother was illiterate but she insisted on one thing, every kid of hers must be educated. My late father was such a hardworking person. After the Japanese Occupation in 1945, he cycled 30km to town to sell salt. The bicycle those days had hard and airless rubber tyres.
After school, I sold newspapers, did household works and looked after farm animals. We never had a refrigerator to store food like today. These hardships taught me how to survive.
Ipoh Echo: How did your journey in politics begin?
Kula: That triggered me when I was very young. I was one of those with a red IC when I was twelve. I never understood why. After three years, I was able to acquire a blue IC and then sat for my Form Three LCE examinations. When I was in Form Five or Six, I liked to listen to ceramahs and was pretty excited by these political speeches.
I contested as a DAP candidate in Canning Garden in 1995, Teluk Intan in 1997 and Ipoh Barat in 1999. My joining politics is only for one simple reason – to empower and to help the people. And I firmly believe there must be zero involvement in corruption.
Ipoh Echo: Before we end, is there anything else that you would like to add?
Kula: I am concerned that a lot of youths are not so involved in politics. Start questioning your politicians, MPs, state assemblymen and local councillors. They must be answerable to you. Start engaging with them via NGOs, etc. so they will be on their toes. Tomorrow’s world is with the youths thus they play a pivotal role.
We will make the electoral process easier via automatic (online) registration. It costs the government RM110 million to register voters. Our onerous Election Commission is wasteful and silly when you can do everything online without any cost.
We’ll reduce the voting age to 18. Why don’t governments worldwide want to register young voters? This is because young voters generally vote against the government. With the RM110 million how many low-cost houses, schools and hospitals can we build? How many children can get scholarships? These have been going on for years and years. And this should stop.