The 61-year-old talks about the country’s political transformation, as well as the foreign worker dilemma
By P PREM KUMAR & ALIFAH ZAINUDDIN / Pic By HUSSEIN SHAHARUDDIN & AFIF ABD HALIM
JOB mismatches may be widespread in the country, but the appointment of the new manpower minister is anything but.
M Kulasegaran, a lawyer for over 30 years, has long been a proponent of minority rights and a defender of the low-income community.
He has often raised concerns on labour practices in Parliament that a former Barisan Nasional (BN) minister called for his “harassment” on the ministry to end.
Thus, it was no surprise that the Ipoh Barat MP did not hesitate to send in his request for the human resources portfolio after Pakatan Harapan won the 14th General Election (GE14).
“I knew if there was a change in government, there was a very strong possibility of me getting a position in the Cabinet. But having a position is only one aspect of it.
“I have always wanted this ministry as I have always been particularly interested in the functions and duties of the Human Resources Ministry,” Kulasegaran said in an hour-long interview with The Malaysian Reserve.
The 61-year-old, who’s in his second month as minister and has the people’s interest at heart, talks about the country’s political transformation, as well as the foreign worker dilemma.
From Advocator to Minister
Growing up, Kulasegaran spent his early days in a rubber estate and sold nasi lemak during the turbulent 1960s.
The May 13, 1969, incident — which had a traumatic experience for him — sparked his interest in politics.
He graduated from Lincoln’s Inn in London with a degree in law in 1982 and was later admitted as an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya.
As a well-respected lawyer, Kulasegaran dealt with many labour cases that were referred to the Industrial Court.
According to Kulasegaran, these cases were typically for claims of between RM1,500 and RM2,000 which made them relatively unworthy of a lawyer’s fee.
Given his own difficult upbringing, Kulasegaran viewed such cases as needing the most assistance.
He entered into the political arena in 1983 by joining DAP.
Kulasegaran became an MP in 1997 after winning the Teluk Intan
He has since shifted to the Ipoh Barat constituency — a seat he has secured for four consecutive terms since 2004.
In the recent GE14, the lawmaker won by a massive 45,724 majority against BN’s Dr Cheng Wei Yee who received only 16.2% of the total vote.
“When I first entered Parliament in 1997, we were considered a ‘mosquito’ party with only 11 MPs. Today, things have changed so much.
“This is the transformation of politics over the years. The hope and aspiration of the people have finally crystallised into something that has empowered us to represent them, and we will not let them down,” he said.
On May 21, Kulasegaran, dressed in a grey suit and donning the thallapa, a Tamil headgear, was sworn in as the manpower minister. He is currently the only minister of Tamil descent in the Cabinet.
“The excitement was fantastic. The Cabinet is an experience of a different kind, every day I enjoy the work,” Kulasegaran said.
First Order of Business
On his first day in office, Kulasegaran demanded his ministry to hold onto two “simple and humane” principles of integrity and enforcement during his tenure as minister.
He said it is important that civil servants under his ministry observed these ideals to ensure jobs can be carried out effectively.
When he took office, cases that needed to be referred to the Industrial Court were piled up.
“I am still signing until today because of the backlog. I have thus far signed more than a thousand-odd issues that need to be referred to the Industrial Court.
“I don’t blame the previous ministers, they didn’t have the time,” he said.
Kulasegaran said problems that fall under the purview of his ministry needed to be addressed in the shortest time possible as it dealt with people’s livelihood.
“It is bad enough if a person is jobless for a month. My internal worry is they could, by now, fall into the hands of Ah Longs (loan sharks) because these are people with very meagre income. These are the people who need the assistance, and time is against them,” he said.
The newly elected minister has given direct orders to his ministry and the Industrial Court to clear the backlog and settle the pending cases between 30 days and three months respectively.
Shaking Up the Agencies
Kulasegaran has also been occupied with the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF), an agency under the ministry, due to claims of an alleged misappropriation of RM300 million in funds.
Earlier in June, training companies had vented their anger at HRDF and suggested there was a conflict of interest as a board member of the agency was also a training provider.
A report was made to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission a week later.
Subsequently, HRDF CEO Datuk CM Vignaesvaran Jeyandran tendered his resignation. HRDF deputy CEO Lim Kah Cheng is now its acting CEO.
In response to the government’s request, the billion-ringgit fund had set up a Government Oversight Committee tasked to review all aspects of the board’s governance framework.
Members of the committee include former International Trade and Industry Ministry secretary general Tan Sri Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, former EY Malaysia director Fiona Soh, lawyer Fahri Azzat, accountant S Dhamodaran and seasoned journalist R Nadeswaran.
The committee has been given 100 days to complete their task.
“I had to spend a lot of time at HRDF in the last three to four weeks. I am not too sure if they have done anything wrong. I leave it to the committee to decide,” Kulasegaran commented.
“After a June 27 event at HRDF, I can move to another agency.”
When asked which agency he is going after next, Kulasegaran said he would let the agencies be caught by surprise.
However, recent developments suggest the immediate target could be the Social Security Organisation (Socso).
“I will be very frank with you. This is something that I did not realise when I was appointed a minister. I thought I’ll just come here as a troubleshooter, enforce and amend the law and get people to do their work,” he said.
Kulasegaran said he is committed to revive the four agencies under his ministry and put them back on track.
“As far as I’m concerned, if there is an error that is not criminal or lacking supervision, we will assist them. I want all of the agencies under me to be the best in the country,” he said.
Work is also in place to get the country’s 500 training arms under one roof.
Kulasegaran found it unacceptable that technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions are running at only 70% of their capacity when the government spends nearly RM4.5 billion on them annually.
He said there was an overlap in the running of TVETs with seven ministries involved in their operations.
Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, who is also PKR VP, has been appointed as the head of a special task force to strengthen and improve TVETs.
At the end of the two-month study, the country’s TVET system is expected to be streamlined.
Kulasegaran said Malaysia will look towards emulating the German model of TVETs where the prospects of students are brighter and are viewed as credible.
The Trouble with Foreign Workers
The Manpower Ministry and the Home Affairs Ministry are expected to discuss ways of synchronising the foreign workers intake and review agreements with source countries, in line with the new government’s pledge to reduce the amount of foreign workers in the country.
“Malaysians must be given preference first. Foreigners come second. In positions where Malaysians can fill in, they should be given priority,” Kulasegaran said of the agreement review.
Malaysia recorded a dramatic increase in foreign workers from 1.06 million in 2002 to 1.8 million in 2017.
About 250,000 out of this figure work in the service sector, such as restaurants that have seen an increase of 80,000 workers between 2010 and 2017.
Kulasegaran said most of the pro-blems involving foreign workers are due to the role of middlemen.
“Our study shows that when an employer needs 30 workers, for example, the agent submits for 100 workers. These extra workers become a problem to us,” he said.
The DAP vice chairman recently came under fire for what was perceived as a sudden ban on foreign cooks at local eateries.
Kulasegaran, however, said it was a mere suggestion and has clarified that the local cooks requirement is only applicable to local food outlets and does not extend to foreign food restaurants, high-end restaurants, or five-star hotels which require specia- lised cooks.
“Having said all that, I think the employers in the country should try their level best to hire chefs and cooks from the Malaysian community,” said Kulasegaran.
He said town hall sessions to meet the rakyat are in the pipeline.
“(Moreover,) 60% supports the notion, so Malaysians do want it. We cannot shelve it away,” Kulasegaran said.
He added that there is no time frame to the proposal and is willing to consider the matter in a holistic manner.
“Let’s have a win-win position on this,” he said.
An Old Foe Returns as Leader
Kulasegaran, who has been an MP for more than 20 years, describes his relationship with Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as “revolutionary”.
He said under his previous administration, the 92-year-old politician has changed from his authoritarian ways.
“When I met him in 1997, he was a strict PM. He will just come (into Parliament), answer a question or two and then go off. He will never talk to the Opposition.
“He was not a man who had time for us. For him, his focus was on the nation,” Kulasegaran said.
Now, he said, the situation is different.
“Today, Dr Mahathir is always open to anything and everything — which I think is most important.”