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10 Social Justice Milestones That Shaped Malaysia

The creation of a more socially just society doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of a country’s administration. Each one of us has a part to play in bridging the gaps in the community either directly or indirectly. Quintessentially, social justice seeks a level playing field regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, geographical location, religion, ability, age or economic status. 

We could use our voices to ensure stronger policies are passed to promote better access, participation, and diversity and to uphold the human rights of those who are voiceless.

Here are 10 milestones that should be celebrated where Malaysians have worked together in battling the injustices faced by underserved communities. 

#1: Eradicating Poverty In Malaysia

As a nation, we have taken strides in reducing the poverty rate in the country. In 1957, the poverty rate stood at 51.2%[1].

In 1970, the poverty rate in the country was 49.3%[2]. The establishment of the New Economic Policy (NEP) by the administration in 1971 opinions may vary in its success and repercussions. This policy was set up as a two-pronged solution for eradicating poverty regardless of race and to accelerate social restructuring.

The policy that ended in 1990 did achieve poverty eradication, as the rate drastically fell to 5.1% in 2002. In 2016, the poverty rate in Malaysia fell to 0.4%[2]

Source: Malaysiakini

Even so, this particular achievement should be taken with a grain of salt as UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston has suggested in 2019 that:

Actual poverty rates are much higher than official figures suggest, and the Government needs to reassess how it measures poverty so that the hardship many Malaysians experience is not conjured out of existence by a statistical sleight of hand. – Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur[3]

However, progress is being made with the government’s goal to eradicate poverty by 2025.

#2: Speeding Up Social Mobility

The concept of social mobility refers to the ability of a younger person to move upward or downward on the socioeconomic ladder as compared to their parents. Social mobility is influenced by access to opportunities and incentives regardless of race, religion, descent, geographical location and gender.

The Global Social Mobility Index by World Economic Forum sees Malaysia ranked 43 out of 82 countries. Some of the measures Malaysia fared well were in access to technology, work opportunities and healthcare[4]. However, there are some instances where inequalities have been observed, in working conditions, social protection and fair wage distribution. 

Source: Unsplash

According to Khazanah Research Institute findings in 2016, upward education mobility in Malaysia is high at 62%[6], with children being more educated compared to their parents. However, only 5% of Indians born to parents without formal education were able to attain tertiary education[6].  

Women have also been found to be less upwardly mobile, suggesting there are existing barriers as compared to men[6].  

#3: Improved Healthcare For Expectant Mothers

In 1950, Malaysia recorded a high Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) of 540 deaths per 100,000 live births[7]. A high maternal mortality rate refers to the likelihood of maternal death during pregnancy or within 42 days of pregnancy’s termination. The cause could be related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or the management of termination itself. 

Source: WHO/Y.Shimizu

Through the implementation of the Maternal and Child Health Program (MCH) and the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths (CEMD), the mortality rate has been reduced. The MCH was targeted to rural areas where it is prevalent, and healthcare facilities were provided with trained midwives[7].  

With wider access to healthcare and providing proper facilities, more babies in Malaysia are born safely. In 1990, it was recorded that there were 50 deaths per 100,000 live births[7] and in 2017, 29 deaths per 100,000 live births[8]

#4: Inoculating Children From Danger

Introduced in the 1950s, the National Immunisation Programme provided children with immunisations that would arm them against major childhood diseases. In 1989, Malaysia took it a step further with the Expanded Programme for Immunisation (EPI), providing immunisation against 13 major diseases that affect children[8], such as polio, measles, whooping cough and Tuberculosis.  

The 2021 data by World Bank suggest more than 90% of children in Malaysia have been immunised against measles, diphtheria and Hepatitis B.

The immunisations that are readily available and free of charge for Malaysian citizens have recently been able to eradicate smallpox in Malaysia. 

#5: Education For All Regardless Of Abilities

In the early days of Malaysia’s formation, special education in Malaysia was catered to individuals with physical impairments. Children with special needs other than deafness and blindness received education mainly in national schools, or may not have had access to schools.

The first step towards inclusion in education took place in 1988 through the Integrated Special Education Program. Children with special needs who are part of mainstream education were given priority in terms of assistance[9].  

Following this, the Ministry of Education included the Special Education Department in 1995. The result was the introduction of three distinct programmes providing inclusive special education. Special education schools were established, predominantly for children with visual and hearing impairments with one for children with learning disabilities in 2014. 

An integration program, the Special Education Integrated Programme (SEIP) provides specific classes within schools for children with disabilities. In 2014, there were approximately 2000 SEIP primary and secondary schools. The Inclusive Education Programme is the nation’s effort to integrate special needs children into classes with the support of teaching aids and additional assistance[9].

Another stepping stone came through the passing of the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2001. The Act stated that “persons with disabilities shall not be excluded from the general education system on the basis of disabilities.”

#6: Girls And Women’s Participation In Higher Education 

In 1957, only 33% of girls were enrolled in secondary school[10]. In 2018, 75% were enrolled in secondary schools. 

There was also progress in the entrance of women into tertiary education; in the 1970s, 10,791 males and 4,596 females were enrolled in public higher education institutions[11]. The numbers have only risen, and more women are pursuing tertiary education compared to men. 

In 2020, female enrollment encompasses 61% at 357,087 in public institutions. In private higher education institutions, females make up 53% of 537,434 students [12].

#7: Steps Taken To Safeguard Migrant Workers’ Rights 

It is estimated that there were 2.1 million foreigners working in various sectors in Malaysia up to June 2022[13]. Various NGOs have raised concerns over severe labour rights violations towards migrant workers in Malaysia through the publication of foreign press reports about their dire living conditions and abuse cases. 

Some of the progressive steps that have been taken include providing foreign workers with work-related injury benefits, however, there’s more to be done. Currently, foreign workers are only eligible for employment injury scheme (EIS) whilst Malaysian employees are covered with invalidity pension scheme that encompasses other than employment related injuries.

In addition, the 2023 government is set to reform the current migrant workers hiring process by removing the intermediaries or agents that have been a cause of abusive migrant worker management in the country. 

#8: Women Allowed To Vote

Historically, the first general election in Malaysia was held in 1955, with the Alliance led by PM Tunku Abdul Rahman winning comfortably. However, there is no mention of whether females were part of it.

The right to vote for women in Malaysia was granted in 1957 following the political independence from the British regime. Despite the lack of fight required, activists instead have fought for the emancipation of women including increased access to attend higher education[14].

Even so,the political arena continues to be dominated by men, despite current activists’ efforts to increase the representation of women in parliament.

#9: The Rise Of Women’s Rights Group

Women have been organising movements since before Merdeka. In the past, it was an anti-colonial organisation divided according to ethnicity. With rights such as the right to vote having been enshrined in the legislation, the fight for women’s rights in Malaysia didn’t come into the picture until the 1980s[15].

The first women’s NGOs acted as a shelter for women who suffered domestic abuse and provided counselling and legal assistance. The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) was established in 1982, followed by the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) in 1985.

Source: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

Both organisations have steadily evolved over time fighting for causes that have led to monumental changes in Malaysia’s legislation such as the anti-stalking law, and laws related to sexual harassment. 

In recent years, the women’s rights scene has burgeoned, giving rise to more women’s groups such as Sisters in Islam, PurpleLily and Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) Penang

#10: The Fight For A Harmonious Community Starts With Us

Racial equality in Malaysia is a delicate topic, especially with the divisive line drawn due to the policies of the past such as the establishment of vernacular schools and the NEP. The root of racial inequalities is the British colonial policy and institutions that have permeated into the political scene and spilt over until today.

However, in 1947, the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) sought to challenge the status quo. It also marked the first all-race political alliance in Malaysia. All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) produced their own constitutional proposal, displaying strong solidarity between communities and promising equality in the nation[16]

Taking it a step further, a hartal or strike was held, gaining massive support. However, the recommendations were sidelined and the ruling British used the Registrar of Societies to ban members of AMCJA including Tun Tan Cheng Lock. 

We could have changed how our Federal Constitution looked if the recommendations were taken into consideration. 

However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are organisations such as Pusat KOMASArchitects of Diversity (AOD), Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Projek Sama-Sama, IMAGINED Malaysia and Kita Bukan Kami.

These organisations are addressing the issue of racial discord and promoting racial unity among the youths of today. With the existence of initiatives that tackle a sensitive issue head-on, it is a precursory step to ensure policies at the top would shift in time. 

Even so, racial unity could also be weaved by each one of us, as shown by a dinner organised by the Christians for Peace and Harmony in Malaysia (CPHM) movement that gathered 300 Malaysians representing over 100 ethnic and religious groups[17]. It is a testament that as Malaysians, we have lived together in harmony and it is only some thorny fruits that seek to divide us. 

Explore our sources:

  1. Y.Ikemoto. (1985). “Income distribution in Malaysia: 1957–80.” The Developing Economies 23 (4):347-367.
  2. M.S.Mat Lazim. (2020). Evolution of migration for urban and rural. Department of Statistics Malaysia. Link
  3. United Nations. (2019).Malaysia vastly undercounting poverty, says UN rights expert. Link
  4. World Economic Forum. (2020). Global Social Mobility Index 2020: why economies benefit from fixing inequality. Link 
  5. Khazanah Research Institute. (2016).Climbing the Ladder: Socio-economic Mobility in Malaysia. Link
  6. Borgen Magazine. (2015). The Decline of Maternal Mortality in Malaysia. Link 
  7. The World Bank. (2017). Maternal mortality ratio (modeled estimate, per 100,000 live births) – Malaysia. Link 
  8. Malaysiakini. (2022). Childhood vaccinations saw a significant drop in 2020, now doctors are pleading to return to them. Link
  9. The Borgen Magazine. (2021). The Evolution of Special Education in Malaysia. Link
  10. Borgen Project. (n.d.).10 FACTS ABOUT GIRLS’ EDUCATION IN MALAYSIA. Link
  11. J.L.Fernandez. (n.d.)Women and Education in Malaysia. Universiti Sains Malaysia. Link  
  12. N.Ahmad. (2021). Celebrating the success of women in higher education. The Star. Link 
  13. The Star. (2022). About 2.1 million foreign workers in Malaysia as at June 2022, says Statistics Dept. Link
  14. J. Ellis. (2022). When women got the right to vote in 50 countries. Link
  15. A.Izharuddin. (2014). Malaysian feminist activism as an effect of history. Link 
  16. R.Wang. (2019). In 1947, Malaya almost adopted a completely different Federal Constitution. Link
  17. M.Yusry. (2022). 100 ethnic, religious groups heed call to improve interfaith friendship, peace and harmony. The Sun Daily. Link

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