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Look, a minimum wage would spur economic activity

Here’s more evidence to show that a minimum wage can actually keep the economy purring.

This time, we go to the United States.

San Francisco-based journalist, Dick Meister, a specialist on labour issues, is actually calling on the US administration to raise the minimum wage there to a more decent level. A minimum wage, far from dampening economic sentiment, could actually spur domestic demand and boost economic activity. Here’s what he has to say:

But what of that other bit of fiction spread by opponents, their flimsy argument that raising the minimum forces employers to eliminate jobs? Don’t you believe it.

Just the opposite has happened after each of the 19 previous times the minimum has been raised since it was initially set at 25 cents an hour in 1938. The job growth has been spurred primarily by the increased spending of those whose pay has been increased.

What’s more, the raises have benefited employers, since increasing workers’ pay raises their morale and, with it, their productivity, while decreasing absenteeism and recruiting and training costs.

Taxpayers would benefit, too, since so much of the billions paid out in public assistance goes to families whose working members do not earn enough at the current minimum wage to be self-supporting.

So isn’t that reason enough for Malaysia to introduce a minimum wage? After 50 years of Merdeka and 44 years of Malaysia, do you seriously think our nation as a whole stands to gain by paying poverty-line wages to hundreds of thousands of long-suffering workers?

Oil running out – and Malaysia allows an energy-intensive smelter

The oil is running out.

Yes, in Malaysia too.

By 2010, we will become a net importer of oil. If our domestic demand for petroleum products continues to increase by 4 per cent annually, we will have nothing left over to export as demand will exceed domestic crude oil production.

Many countries around the world are beginning to feel the energy squeeze. As Peak Oil – the slowdown in oil production, which is incapable of meeting rising demand – sets in, the price of oil will soar. The resulting energy squeeze has already hit dozens of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Jeroen van der Veer, the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, has just laid out the “Three hard truths about the world’s energy crisis” and it is sobering food for thought:

  • The first hard truth is that demand is accelerating.
  • The second hard truth is that the growth rate of supplies of “easy oil,” conventional oil and natural gas that are relatively easy to extract, will struggle to keep up with demand.
  • The third hard truth is that increased use of coal will cause higher carbon dioxide emissions possibly to levels we deem unacceptable.

So what do we do? We blow our precious hydro-electric resources on an energy-intensive, polluting (yeah, yeah, it is supposed to be green technology) smelter in Sarawak – a RM7 billion joint venture between Rio Tinto and Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS) – and we all know whom the latter is linked to. (Check out the environmental protests against Rio Tinto’s smelter in Iceland here.)

This smelter will soak up all that surplus electricity from the 2,400MW Bakun Dam, whose power we don’t really need at the moment. Whether the Bakun Dam is really capable of delivering the 2,400MW in electricity is another issue – given that the designated catchment area has been badly degraded through logging and conversion to plantations. (Check out the latest Aliran Monthly for more info on the degradation of the catchment area.)

And what has happened to those grand plans to transmit electricity to the peninsula via submarine cables?

Planning for the Bakun Dam itself has been an unmitigated disaster. The project has been plagued by numerous delays, the scandalous relocation of indigenous people, cost over-runs and now uncertainty over what to do with all that surplus electricity if – and that is a big IF – the dam can really deliver 2,400MW. Ever since they took over the ancestral lands of the indigenous people, you could say the project has been jinxed.

Sime Darby is the lead project manager of the Bakun Dam. It is also one of the key parties involved in the Northern Corridor Economic Region project – and let’s not forget its usual business of managing massive oil palm plantations. Isn’t that a wee bit of an overstretch? And we know what happens when a corporation over-extends itself, don’t we. Last time I checked, Sime Darby hasn’t had a very happy record venturing into non-core activities (think Sime Bank).

The smelter firms no doubt are looking for “cheap, cheap” electricity – but at the electricity tariff rates they desire, can we ever recover the billions of ringgit poured into the bottomless pit known as the Bakun Dam?

Who will take responsibility for this?

What if Jesus had lived in Latin America?

I came across this interesting power-point presentation of the Stations of the Cross by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Argentina, and I thought I would share it with you. What is different about these Stations is that the scenes of the Passion are actually contextualised to reflect current day realities.

This particular presentation is set in Latin America with commentary by Alastair McIntosh, a writer, lecturer, social activist, broadcaster and campaigning academic based in Scotland. It is based upon, and builds on, original text from CIDSE agencies (Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité) that distributed the images.

Download the powerpoint presentation here. Amazing how this 2,000-year-old Gospel event can jump to life when set against a backdrop of current day socio-economic realities.

Religious leaders overcome odds to affirm right to water

It’s not often that religious leaders come together to take a common stand on an issue of national significance.

Over the years, Aliran organised a couple of seminars – one on corruption and the other on the human being – that looked at these issues from the perspective of the various spiritual traditions.

In recent times, we have seen religious leaders coming together to protest against the invasion of Iraq and, last weekend, to reaffirm the right to water in an interfaith seminar. But this time, the plan by various religious and civil society groups to hold the event at the National Mosque was scuttled at the last moment.

Obviously, some quarters are uncomfortable with the idea of Muslims and non-Muslims putting aside their differences and coming together to take a common stand on an important public interest issue especially at such a prominent landmark as the National Mosque.

In this piece for IPS, I looked at the run-up to the seminar and the last-minute change in venue.

When religious leaders from different faiths sought to jointly affirm the sacredness of wateron scuttle interfaith harmony as well as support plans to privatise a common resource.

Plans to hold the highly symbolic interfaith forum on the right to water at the National Mosque, a major landmark in the capital Kuala Lumpur, on Saturday had to be scuttled when the organisers were suddenly forced to shift the venue to a location five km way.

But, the last-minute change did not stop prominent leaders of the Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh faiths from signing a landmark joint declaration on water and affirm that the element is a sacred gift bestowed by the creator to people to be conserved and used to fulfil the basic needs of all living things on earth. Full article: Water a sacred gift, affirm interfaith leaders

Return the denarii to Caesar

Christianity should not merely be seen as a spiritual process. There are also the social, cultural and economic dimensions involving the whole human person and his/her relationship with the community.

In the Old Testament, God dramatically intervened in human history to rescue His people from slavery and oppression.

Jesus heralded the reign of God in a more direct fashion. Inevitably, when we choose the side of the poor and criticise injustices, we run into conflict with the interests of the rich and powerful.

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Herald.

Jesus himself did not set about to upset the powers-that-be during his time. But his message that the Kingdom of God, God’s reign, was at hand was a slap against the sovereignty of Caesar, the Roman Occupiers and Israel’s own worldly rulers. The values that he proclaimed – love, compassion, justice – were diametrically at odds with the values of the Roman Empire (oppression, tyranny and greed).

Seen in that light, Jesus’ message to render to God what was God’s and to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s meant that we should give back to worldly rulers the ultimately worthless and futile pursuits (wealth, greed, ambition) symbolised by the denarii (money and the oppressive economic system). The denarii was to be given back to Caesar, while the people were to go back to their rightful “owner”, God. Through this separation of the tainted denarii from the people of God, it could be said that Jesus was bestowing economic independence on the people – an independence from the oppressive structures of the time.

And that independence was seen in basic communities from the time of the Gospel to the conversion of Constantine. They saw themselves as under God’s direct reign – a reign that, even though dimmed by the later worldly ambitions and oppression of political and church leaders, continues to this day.

In that sense, we are called once again to return to the Gospel in basic communities, to take stock of global challenges and begin the transformation at the local level. This time, the challenges – economic, political, social and cultural – and the oppressive economic system are a thousand times more formidable. Whereas the empire of the Roman world in the Gospels was confined to the known world, today the tentacles of Empire stretch across the globe in the form of neo-liberalism (and other policies which favour the rich over the poor, the capitalist class over the workers), militarism and the arms race, global trade injustice…