Inequality in the 21st Century

March 19, 2018

Inequality in the 21st Century

by Kaushik Basu

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As inequality continues to deepen worldwide, we do not have the luxury of sticking to the status quo. Unless we confront the inequality challenge head on – as we have just begun to do with another existential threat, climate change – social cohesion, and especially democracy, will come under growing threat.

At the end of a low and dishonest year, reminiscent of the “low, dishonest decade” about which W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “September 1, 1939,” the world’s “clever hopes” are giving way to recognition that many severe problems must be tackled. And, among the severest, with the gravest long-term and even existential implications, is economic inequality.

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The alarming level of economic inequality globally has been well documented by prominent economists, including Thomas Piketty, François Bourguignon, Branko Milanović, and Joseph E. Stiglitz, and well-known institutions, including OXFAM and the World Bank. And it is obvious even from a casual stroll through the streets of New York, New Delhi, Beijing, or Berlin.

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Voices on the right often claim that this inequality is not only justifiable, but also appropriate: wealth is a just reward for hard work, while poverty is an earned punishment for laziness. This is a myth. The reality is that the poor, more often than not, must work extremely hard, often in difficult conditions, just to survive.

Moreover, if a wealthy person does have a particularly strong work ethic, it is likely attributable not just to their genetic predisposition, but also to their upbringing, including whatever privileges, values, and opportunities their background may have afforded them. So there is no real moral argument for outsize wealth amid widespread poverty.

This is not to say that there is no justification for any amount of inequality. After all, inequality can reflect differences in preferences: some people might consider the pursuit of material wealth more worthwhile than others. Moreover, differential rewards do indeed create incentives for people to learn, work, and innovate, activities that promote overall growth and advance poverty reduction.

But, at a certain point, inequality becomes so severe that it has the opposite effect. And we are far beyond that point.

Plenty of people – including many of the world’s wealthy – recognize how unacceptable severe inequality is, both morally and economically. But if the rich speak out against it, they are often shut down and labeled hypocrites. Apparently, the desire to lessen inequality can be considered credible or genuine only by first sacrificing one’s own wealth.

The truth, of course, is that the decision not to renounce, unilaterally, one’s wealth does not discredit a preference for a more equitable society. To label a wealthy critic of extreme inequality as a hypocrite amounts to an ad hominem attack and a logical fallacy, intended to silence those whose voices could make a difference.

Fortunately, this tactic seems to be losing some of its potency. It is heartening to see wealthy individuals defying these attacks, not only by openly acknowledging the economic and social damage caused by extreme inequality, but also by criticizing a system that, despite enabling them to prosper, has left too many without opportunities.

In particular, some wealthy Americans are condemning the current tax legislation being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump’s administration, which offers outsize cuts to the highest earners – people like them. As Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard Group and a certain beneficiary of the proposed cuts, put it, the plan – which is all but guaranteed to exacerbate inequality – is a “moral abomination.”

Yet recognizing the flaws in current structures is just the beginning. The greater challenge is to create a viable blueprint for an equitable society. (It is the absence of such a blueprint that has led so many well-meaning movements in history to end in failure.) In this case, the focus must be on expanding profit-sharing arrangements, without stifling or centralizing market incentives that are crucial to drive growth.

A first step would be to give all of a country’s residents the right to a certain share of the economy’s profits. This idea has been advanced in various forms by Marty Weitzman, Hillel Steiner, Richard Freeman, and, just last month, Matt Bruenig. But it is particularly vital today, as the share of wages in national income declines, and the share of profits and rents rises – a trend that technological progress is accelerating.

There is another dimension to profit-sharing that has received little attention, related to monopolies and competition. With modern digital technology, the returns to scale are so large that it no longer makes sense to demand that, say, 1,000 firms produce versions of the same good, each meeting one-thousandth of total demand.

A more efficient approach would have 1,000 firms each creating one part of that good. So, when it comes to automobiles, for example, one firm would produce all of the gears, another producing all of the brake pads, and so on.

Traditional antitrust and pro-competition legislation – which began in 1890 with the Sherman Act in the US – prevents such an efficient system from taking hold. But a monopoly of production need not mean a monopoly of income, as long as the shares in each company are widely held. It is thus time for a radical change, one that replaces traditional anti-monopoly laws with legislation mandating a wider dispersal of shareholding within each company.

These ideas are largely untested, so much work would need to be done before they could be made operational. But as the world lurches from one crisis to another, and inequality continues to deepen, we do not have the luxury of sticking to the status quo. Unless we confront the inequality challenge head on, social cohesion and democracy itself will come under growing threat.

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*Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Wealth Concentration Continues to Increase

January 23, 2018

Wealth Concentration Continues to Increase

SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, January 23, 2018 (IPS) – As the ‘masters of the universe’ gather for their annual retreat at Davos, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has just published its Inclusive Development Index (IDI) for the second time.

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After moderating from the 1920s until the 1970s, inequality has grown with a vengeance from the 1980s as neoliberal ascendance unleashing regressive reforms on various fronts.

Sensing the growing outrage at earlier neo-liberal reforms and their consequences, as well as the financial sector bail-outs and fiscal austerity after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, politicians and business leaders have expressed concerns about inequality’s resurgence.

The record is more nuanced. While national level inequalities have grown in most economies over the last four decades, international income disparities between North and South have actually narrowed, largely due to growth accelerations in much of the latter.

But while income inequality trends have been mixed, wealth concentration has picked up steam, recently enabled by the low cost of credit, thanks to ‘unconventional monetary policies’ in the North.

According to the World Inequality Report 2018, the top 1% in the world had twice as much income growth as the bottom half since 1980. Meanwhile, income growth has been sluggish or even flat for those with incomes between the bottom half and the top 1%. Oxfam’s new Reward Work, Not Wealth report reveals that the world’s wealthiest 1% got 82% of the wealth generated in 2017, while the bottom 50% saw no increase at all!

The world’s 500 richest, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index, became US$1 trillion richer during 2017, “more than four times” the gain in 2016, as their wealth increased by 23%, taking their combined fortunes to US$5.3 trillion. According to the UBS/PwC Billionaires Report 2017, there are now 1,542 US dollar billionaires in the world, after 145 more joined their ranks in 2016.

Worsening wealth inequality

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Meanwhile, the latest Credit Suisse Report found that the world’s richest 1% increased their share of total wealth from 42.5% at the height of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or US$140 trillion.

It shows that the bottom half together owned less than 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% owned 88% of all wealth, and the top 1% alone accounted for half of all assets. Thus, global household debt rose by nearly 5% in 2017 despite total wealth increasing by US$16.7 trillion, or 6.4%.

The Report attributes this to uneven asset price inflation with financial asset prices growing much faster than non-financial asset values. Recent unconventional monetary policies of the world’s major central banks contributed to such asset price inflation.

The European Central Bank has acknowledged that quantitative easing (QE) has fuelled asset price inflation. Kevin Warsh, a former US Federal Reserve Board member, has argued that QE has only worked through the ‘asset price channel’, enriching those who own financial assets, not the 96% who mainly rely on income from labour.

An IMF study found that ‘fiscal consolidation’, typically involving austerity, has significantly worsened inequality, depressed labour income shares and increased long-term unemployment.

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MOZAMBIQUE, Beira, Grande Hotel, opened 1955 during portuguese colonial time, today some thousand homeless people living here.

Another IMF research report shows that capital account liberalization — typically recommended to attract foreign capital inflows without due attention to the consequences of sudden outflows — has generally significantly and persistently increased national-level inequalities.

The World Inequality Report 2018 also observed that rising income inequality has largely been driven by unequal wealth ownership. Privatization in most countries since the 1980s has resulted in negative ‘public wealth’ — public assets minus public debt — in rich countries, even as national wealth has grown substantially. Over recent decades, countries have become richer as governments have become poorer, constraining governments’ ability to address inequality by increasing public provisioning of essential services.

An earlier IMF study also noted that the neoliberal reforms — promoting privatization, cutting government spending, and strictly limiting fiscal deficits and government debt — have also increased economic inequality.

On average, net private wealth in most rich countries rose from 200–350% of national income in 1970 to 400-700% recently as marginal tax rates for the rich and super-rich have fallen. The Oxfam report identifies tax evasion, corporate capture of public policy, erosion of workers’ rights and cost cutting as major contributors to widening inequalities.

The IMF’s recent Fiscal Monitor acknowledges that regressive tax reforms have caused tax incidence to be far less progressive, if not regressive, while failure to tax the rich more has increased inequality. Besides new tax evasion opportunities and much lower marginal income tax rates, capital gains are hardly taxed, encouraging top executives to pay themselves with stock options.


It is quite remarkable how increasing wealth concentration has been described and presented to the public. For example, the Allianz Global Wealth Report 2016 has described the trends as ‘inclusive inequality’, claiming a growing global middle class even as inequality has been rising.

Similarly, the Credit Suisse Report argues that wealth distribution is shifting as the world becomes wealthier, thus lowering barriers to wealth acquisition. Increasing wealth and income inequality are thus merely reflecting faster asset accumulation, including the pace at which new millionaires are being created.

Josef Stadler, UBS head of global ultra-high net worth and lead author of the UBS/PwC Billionaires Report 2017, decries “the perception that billionaires make money for themselves at the expense of the wider population” as incorrect, attributing billionaires’ fortunes to the strong performance of their companies and investments.

Besides their philanthropic contributions and patronage of the arts, culture and sports, 98% of billionaires’ wealth are said by him to contribute to society as the world’s super-rich employed 27.7 million people. Rather than making money from their employees’ efforts, billionaires apparently make private welfare payments to them out of the goodness of their hearts!



Greetings from Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh for Xmas and 2018

December 23, 2017

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh for Xmas and 2018

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Dr. Kamsiah Haider in Kuala Lumpur and Din Merican in Phnom Penh wish all our friends and associates around the world a Merry Christmas 2017 and prosperous New Year, 2018. We are indeed grateful for your warm friendship and support we enjoyed during 2017. We forward to working with you in the coming year and together we can make our world a better place.
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We have little time for politicians and ideologues as they are a crop of egoistic, misogynistic  and greedy people. All we have to do is to look at Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and other places to see for ourselves their handiwork. People are their victims, especially women, children and the elderly. They have lost the moral high ground and we must put our differences aside and work hard for peace.
On the occasion of Christmas and the New Year 2018, may we ask Michael Jackson to sing for us his famous song, Make The World a Better Place. –Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican.

The Great Annare (MIC) Hoax

October 31, 2017

The Great Annare (MIC) Hoax

When you are a race-based party ostensibly there to protect the interests of your community, but your community is not the people who voted you into office, there is really no incentive for you to look after the interests of your community beyond making superficial noises about Tamil schools and funding budding entrepreneurs.” –S. Thayaparan.



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Does MIC care about the plight of the Indian Poor?

COMMENT | I have no idea if the Indian vote will make a difference in 60 electoral constituencies but I do know that voting for the Barisan National establishment in this election will seal the fate of the Indian marginalised poor and further class divisions within the diverse Indian community.

As someone who believes the less you need big government, the stronger you are, the disenfranchised of the Indian community which is the voting base of MIC, is the perfect example of what is wrong with the way the Umno establishment has done business all these years.

There is a robust dialectic in the Indian community which goes unnoticed in the Sino-Malay discourse that dominates the alternative press. Establishment Indian political operatives and their supporters have this strange defence as to why the disenfranchised in the Indian community remain marginalised.

Their excuse is that “rich Indians” unlike their Chinese counterparts are not doing enough for the community. While this may be true, this still does not explain why the Indian community should carry on voting for the establishment when MIC is supposed to be looking after the “interests” of the community.


Elites always take care of themselves first, only crumbs for the downtrodden. Expect Samy Velu and his successors in MIC to be any different from UMNO and MCA?

Furthermore, this idea that “rich Indians” are not doing enough is ludicrous because MIC is riddled with plutocrats who are the beneficiaries of a corrupt system that nurtures a feudalistic mindset. In other words, if the rich Indians in MIC cared about their community as the Chinese plutocrats in MCA do, there would be a very different dialectic going on now in the Indian community.

Meanwhile UMNO folk tell me, that whenever funds are dispersed to the Indian community, leakages prevent them from going to where it is needed most. This, of course, is rather disingenuous because everyone knows that there are “leakages”; and funds  are disbursed to ensure that votes would be bought and not that genuine progress is initiated for the disenfranchised of the Indian community.

I, of course, am the last person to talk about the Indian community. I see no reason why the interests of the Indian community should be defined by the Tamil school issue or the building of new temples. Indeed, I view all these language schools anathema to any kind of cohesive nation building but because our public schools is a hotbed of Islamic preoccupations and “ketuanan politics”, the only way young people are assured of any education not politicised by religion and racial superiority are in these kinds of schools.

Beyond that, MIC has a dismal record of holding the line when it comes to religious extremism. Have you noticed that the most disenfranchised of the Indian community – women – have been on the receiving end of Islamic extremism be it forced conversions or their children stolen from them and MIC has done nothing for them.

Indeed the only “Indian” community that has accumulated political and financial power is the Indian Muslim community–the mamaks–who should actually be part of the greater Indian community but instead is an associate member of UMNO. So that is where all the “rich Indians” went.

I mean, take this issue of stateless Indians. I have heard MIC people blame the Indian parents for not registering their newborns. Yes, blame mostly uneducated people for not understanding government bureaucracy. Is it not the job of MIC to ensure that their voting base remains healthy and vibrant? Instead, when opposition politicians bring up this issue – my sincere gratitude to those who specifically put the time and effort into handling these cases – there is this big rush to demonstrate that MIC is earning its keep.

We cannot even talk about the crime statistics, deaths in custody and the shoot first policy as advocated by the Deputy Prime Minister because victims of suspected gangsters are mostly “Malays”, because all this means confronting the issues of religious and racial supremacy and MIC has never been able to criticise the UMNO state because they know, we know and definitely the UMNO state knows, that MIC is part of the problem.

Moreover, let us be truthful especially when it comes to the nexus of crime and political power. While some folks in UMNO may praise their Tiga Line hoodlums as the last line of defence for Malay privileges and religious superiority, MIC has nurtured an overt thug culture which has seen journalists attacked and political meetings turn into freak shows.



The Tamil Malar incident is a prime example of the relationship between the MIC and UMNO. As I said then, “This merely means that people would go, “well, there is that MIC gangster culture, what do you expect” narrative and the Malay ruling elite would just think it is the price of making a display of Indian representation in the ruling coalition. I am down with that too, but it just goes to show how full of horse manure the Ministry of Youth and Sports really is.”

I can understand why MIC has been extremely ineffective in many issues. The Indian community does not have a large voting base because it is not a sizable demographic. Just like Indian politicians who cannot solely rely on their own community to vote them to power, MIC has to rely on UMNO to literally keep them in power. That always comes at the cost of communal sovereignty and independence.

When you are a race-based party ostensibly there to protect the interests of your community, but your community is not the people who voted you into office, there is really no incentive for you to look after the interests of your community beyond making superficial noises about Tamil schools and funding budding entrepreneurs.

No matter how you self-identify in the Indian community, I hope people understand that as the smallest minority, we would be the first to suffer under the assault of Islamic extremism and racial supremacy. Rejecting the establishment and their proxies is the only way to slow the tide of racial and religious extremism.

S. THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

A New Way to study Economics

September 13, 2017

A New Way to study Economics

by John Cassidy

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Dealing with Unemployment,Inequality, and  Poverty

With the new school year starting, there is good news for incoming students of economics—and anybody else who wants to learn about issues like inequality, globalization, and the most efficient ways to tackle climate change. A group of economists from both sides of the Atlantic, part of a project called CORE Econ, has put together a new introductory economics curriculum, one that is modern, comprehensive, and freely available online.

In this country, many colleges encourage Econ 101 students to buy (or rent) expensive textbooks, which can cost up to three hundred dollars, or even more for some hardcover editions. The CORE curriculum includes a lengthy e-book titled “The Economy,” lecture slides, and quizzes to test understanding. Some of the material has already been used successfully at colleges like University College London and Sciences Po, in Paris.

The project is a collaborative effort that emerged after the world financial crisis of 2008–9, and the ensuing Great Recession, when many students (and teachers) complained that existing textbooks didn’t do a good job of explaining what was happening. In many countries, groups of students demanded an overhaul in how economics was taught, with less emphasis on free-market doctrines and more emphasis on real-world problems.

Traditional, wallet-busting introductory textbooks do cover topics like pollution, rising inequality, and speculative busts. But in many cases this material comes after lengthy explanations of more traditional topics: supply-and-demand curves, consumer preferences, the theory of the firm, gains from trade, and the efficiency properties of atomized, competitive markets. In his highly popular “Principles of Economics,” Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw begins by listing a set of ten basic principles, which include “Rational people think at the margin,” “Trade can make everybody better off,” and “Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.”

The CORE approach isn’t particularly radical. (Students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere.) But it treats perfectly competitive markets as special cases rather than the norm, trying to incorporate from the very beginning the progress economists have made during the past forty years or so in analyzing more complex situations: when firms have some monopoly power; people aren’t fully rational; a lot of key information is privately held; and the gains generated by trade, innovation, and finance are distributed very unevenly. The CORE curriculum also takes economic history seriously.

The e-book begins with a discussion of inequality. One of first things students learn is that, in 2014, the “90/10 ratio”—the average income of the richest ten per cent of households divided by the average income of the poorest ten per cent—was 5.4 in Norway, sixteen in the United States, and a hundred and forty-five in Botswana. Then comes a discussion of how to measure standards of living, and a section on the famous “hockey stick” graph, which shows how these standards have risen exponentially since the industrial revolution.

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The text stresses that technical progress is the primary force driving economic growth. Citing the Yale economist William Nordhaus’s famous study of the development of electric lighting, it illustrates how standard economic statistics, such as the gross domestic product, sometimes fail to fully account for this progress. Befitting a twenty-first-century text, sections devoted to the causes and consequences of technological innovation recur throughout the e-book, and the information economy receives its own chapter. So do globalization, the environment, and economic cataclysms, such as the Depression and the global financial crisis.

Given the breadth of its coverage, the CORE curriculum may be challenging to some students, but it takes advantage of being a native online product. (In Britain, a paperback version of the e-book is also available.) The presentation features lots of graphs and charts, and, in some cases, students can download data sets to create their own. The quizzes are interactive, and the presentation is enlivened by potted biographies of famous dead economists (Smith, Keynes, etc.) as well as video interviews with eminent living ones, such as Thomas Piketty.

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Unlike most textbooks, the CORE e-book was produced by a large team of collaborators. More than twenty economists from both sides of the Atlantic and from India, Colombia, Chile, and Turkey contributed to it. (Two of them, Suresh Naidu and Rajiv Sethi, teach at Columbia and Barnard, respectively.) The coördinators of the project were Wendy Carlin, of University College London, Sam Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute, and Margaret Stevens, of Oxford University. The Institute for New Economic Thinking provided some funding to help get things off the ground.

The members of the CORE team deserve credit for responding to the critics of economics without pandering to them. They have produced a careful but engrossing curriculum that will hopefully draw more young people into economics, and encourage them to continue their studies. (At University College London, students who took the CORE course did better in subsequent economics classes than earlier cohorts who took a more traditional introductory course.)

But the CORE material isn’t just for incoming students. It will also reward the attention of general readers and people who think they are already reasonably conversant with economics. (Personal testimony: Having gone through some of the material in detail, I think I might finally understand the Malthusian model and how to calculate bank leverage ratios!) All this, and the price can’t be beat.


The Torch Bearer of Compassion and Hope for The Struggling Malaysian

June 5, 2017

Comment: It is easy to forget what it is like to be on the way down into the dumps, especially when one is heading to, or already, reaching the top. Of course, staying  on and surviving the top of the totem pole is an even tougher one since it  involves political acrobatics in a Malaysian situation.

Arrogance gets in the way,  suddenly one feels that like Jesus Christ one can walk on the water and then gets hit by a point of inflexion when things begin to crumble and everything seems to go wrong. Your friends desert you and cheerleaders stop cheering. These are fair weather friends. Even politicians experience this sense of rejection when their political luck ditches them.

Two Fernandezs (Aegile (and her late sister) Irene are different because they lead simple lives, and are very much in touch with reality. They have witnessed human suffering, discrimination and humiliation and deprivation. Yet their dignity and integrity cannot be measured by money; their commitment to service is legendary and their sense of being compassionate Malaysian admirable. I do not know Aegile personally, but when it comes of Irene, I am privileged to know her by association with Anwar Ibrahim-lead PKR in 2007-2009. Irene was committed to her cause for justice and service to the unfortunate and the downtrodden. So in honoring Aegile, Annabelle Lee is remembering Irene who dared to be different by speaking the inconvenient truths.–Din Merican

The Torch Bearer of Compassion and Hope for The Struggling Malaysian

by Annabelle Lee

Aegile Fernandez always wears the same thing.

On top of a black “Anti-human trafficking” T-shirt, she wears a blue denim shirt with a button badge with the words “I am not for sale” pinned to her left breast pocket.

People in shopping centres always ask her about that badge, and she uses these opportunities to explain what human trafficking is. The denim reminds her of her youth in the 1970s.

On both her slender wrists are stacks of colourful rubber bracelets with slogans like “Freedom”, “Stop Human Trafficking” and “Do Rescues”. A colourful scarf, “a symbol of Asian women”, completes her uniform.

“What I wear is part of my activism. It is my way of educating the public,” says Aegile, who is 68 this year.

She began doing social work as a 16-year-old, visiting the sick in the hospital in Sungai Petani, Kedah. She went on to work with prisoners, sex workers, drug addicts, HIV/AIDS patients, domestic abuse victims, refugees, human trafficking victims and abused children before becoming director at the migrant and workers’ rights NGO her late sister Irene founded – Tenaganita.

Sitting on the metal swing in the garden in the compound of Tenaganita’s headquarters in Petaling Jaya, Aegile shares about her 52 years in social service. This is her story in her own words:

MY PARENTS ALWAYS SAID put other people before yourself. We grew up in a rubber plantation in Sungai Petani, Kedah. My father was brought over by the British from Kerala, India as a migrant worker.

My mother, Margaret, always believed in equality and justice. She loved people. My mother had this thing where she would open the front gate at 6am, and women would drop by for a cup of Milo and biscuits before walking to work. Sometimes they would tell my mother their problems and she would advise them.

I remember even on weekends when I would sleep in, I would hear voices in the kitchen and wondered, “Why are these people in my house so early in the morning?”

We did not have much to offer, but my mother always made extra food because she said “somebody hungry might come by”.

She always reminded me, “remember you only need half of that plate of food. The other half must be given to someone who does not have food.”

She also taught me that my choice of work must not be to control somebody or to make lots of money. Rather it must be about serving other people’s needs.

I MOVED TO KUALA LUMPUR IN 1970 as a 21-year-old to work as a secretary in a big company, but after eight months I felt that it was not the job I wanted. There was something missing.

I thought about my mother’s words and decided to do the thing I love – working with people. That is when I decided to go into social work and activism. I started with organising workers.

IN ALL, I WORKED IN MORE THAN 22 JOBS. From being a waitress, a petrol pump attendant, a factory worker, to a door-to-door salesperson. You name it, I’ve done it. I deeply felt that if I was not there with the workers, I would not understand their issues and problems, or how to organise them.

I got kicked out so many times for trying to organise my co-workers. I would get kicked out from one hotel and go to work at another hotel, until I think it was at the sixth hotel when I found out I was blacklisted from all hotels in Kuala Lumpur.

When I moved on to the restaurant industry, I realised my co-workers in all these five-star restaurants were having money deducted from their salary every month for accidentally scratching or breaking wine glasses.

At the end of the month you would find them with no money left. I gave them RM5, RM10 so they would have something at least. By the end of the month, I would tell Irene “I have no money”. All my money went to sharing.

These experiences made me question arbitrary salary deductions and the low pay workers were getting. I began fighting for what workers should have been getting.

It also showed me how the Labour Department was just keeping quiet about all the broken rules. They only acted when someone walked into their office and complained. But all these workers are not going to come to you, I told them, because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

MY FRIEND CATHERINE AND I WERE PICKING UP ALL THESE BODIES AND BURYING PEOPLE of all races and religions while the authorities stood far away writing notes, telling us to wrap the bodies up in garbage bags. In the 1980s, no one wanted to help people on the streets who were drug dependent and had HIV/AIDS.

People used to ask me, “Are you not afraid of touching the bodies?” and I replied saying “I think God will bless us because we’re helping another human being, even though he or she is dead”. This was when people did not understand HIV/AIDS.

ON MY WAY TO WORK, I WOULD SEE ALL THESE YOUNG GIRLS WORKING AS SEX WORKERS along Petaling Street and wondered how could I help them.

So I went to sit in a coffee shop and got to know these girls when they came by the shop. I got to know about their life, their experiences and why are they were there. I became a friend and a sister to them.

With all the people I worked with, it was important for me to first sit down with them and be their friend. I wanted to understand all that surrounds them and why there were in those situations.

In the process I learned about the whole issue, like how drugs is not just about the person buying it but also about how they come into the country and how they get sold. I learned about these new worlds that few even knew existed.

THESE PEOPLE BECAME MY FAMILY. These people who were shunned by society were the first to offer to buy me food and take me to the hospital when I fell ill. It was much more than what my friends, who were busy with their lives, were willing to do.

WHEN IRENE ASKED ME to join Tenaganita in 1993, I was reluctant at first. In all my years of social work I never joined any organisations because I did not want to be limited by rules and regulations. But Irene had asked me to set up a migrant and human trafficking desk, and I had already been working with those communities since the 1980s.

“With all your experience, come open the desk and start this,” she told me. It was a continuation of the work I was already doing so I said I would give it a try.

THIS WAS A TIME WHEN NOBODY KNEW WHAT HUMAN TRAFFICKING WAS. I remember the police asking me once, “Why are you coming here and taking our jobs? Are you talking about traffic jams?”

This was a group of people, unseen by Malaysians, who were being brought here into the country and sold. Tenaganita became a platform, an umbrella in which to unite all my advocacy work especially when working with authorities.

In the 1990s was also when many women from rural areas were coming into the city to work in the free trade zones, in the electronic industry. Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers began coming into Malaysia. We had a lot of migrants coming in at this time and Tenaganita became a platform where these communities would seek help.

IRENE’S DEATH IN 2014 WAS SUCH A SHOCK. We always joked that I would be the one to go first. Running an organisation is not my cup of tea, I don’t like doing administrative work! My thing is to do be with communities. Like rescuing abused domestic workers.

We get people calling us saying their neighbour is abusing their domestic worker, asking us to come save her. Sometimes the community themselves helps to arrange for a way for the domestic worker to escape from the house.

Previously, we would never get such help because people did not want to get involved. People  are more aware now. More are talking about the rights of domestic workers have.I AM 68 THIS YEAR AND I WILL NOT STOP UNTIL I AM IN THE COFFIN or in the ground, I must say, because I don’t even know if I will have a coffin!

As long as I have a body that can work, I will continue. There is no such thing as retiring. There is still so much to do. So much to teach the young people to take over.

MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.