Datuk Dr. Rose Lena Lazemi’s experience in the public sector spans across several key ministries and departments. To date, her immense public service CV includes past engagements with the Ministry of Energy, Telecommunications & Post, the Malaysian Administrative, Modernisation & Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) and the Public Service Department (PSD). This year, Datuk Dr Rose Lena celebrates her 30th anniversary in public service and myForesight® is honoured to be given the opportunity to interview and share Datuk Dr Rose Lena’s empowering thoughts and insights. Her vast knowledge in the fields of planning, research, policy and human resource management allows her to leverage practical experience in her responsibility to realise the aspiration of the ministry’s vision and mission.
Today we see many attempts to humanise technology, machines and systems to improve the consumer experience.
The importance of family
I started out as a PTD cadet at INTAN about 31 years ago. Information technology was still fairly new then and we used to struggle to complete our assignments as most of us were just learning to handle the computers. When I joined the public service a year later, typing pools were also still the norm and officers depended a lot on typists to type out their paperwork. But today, the post of typist had disappeared from the public service sector. Since, multitude technologies have been invented and applied to help public servants perform our jobs better. Indeed, today we are used to doing our work on the go, just by using our laptops and mobile phones. Government transactions have also gone online. Even our welfare assistances that reach our beneficiaries are conducted online except for those under extenuating circumstances such as recipients who are bed-ridden or severely disabled. We have also leveraged technology to relay information during disasters such as floods and have even developed a mobile app, InfoBencana to allow the public to access quick information particularly on evacuation centres.
In terms of technology’s impact to our society, while technology has brought about a lot of good things especially in terms of productivity enhancement, better connectivity and the likes, technology has also somehow disrupted our values and cultural systems as they change the way we traditionally do things and alter some of our widely-ingrained sociological rationalisations. It remains to be seen to what extent the disruption would be to our daily lives and if the values we uphold today would still be intact in the future. These are among the concerns raised whenever we talk about technology advancement and its impact.
Technology, for instance, is supposed to connect and bond families together, not separate them. Back in the days, we used to have TV time together as a family and watching movies with friends was something that we look forward to on the weekends. With the evolution of entertainment, TV shows and movies can now be viewed anytime and anywhere on mobile. Instead of lounging around with family or friends, now you can download a movie or TV series and do a solo binge, watching your favorite series whenever you have the time. Families as a result are getting more disconnected as we become more attached to technology.
Findings from our Family Wellbeing Index study in 2016 showed that the score for the domain of family and communications technology was one of the lowest. The domain, measured, among others the effect of communications technology on family interactions, and their usage patterns, and the monitoring and supervision of the use of technology by children through applications such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram and SMS.
The main question, therefore, is not technology itself, but more importantly how we put it to good use. So, while our country saw an increased percentage of household access to the internet to 85.7% in 2018 compared to 70.1% in 2015, we also see a worrying trend in terms of uploading and downloading of photographs and visuals of child pornography, lack of parental supervision and monitoring of the use of mobile phones among children, children spending time in online chatrooms on a daily basis and children being sexually assaulted by perpetrators whom they have befriended online through social media, including WeChat, Facebook and WhatsApp. These are just some of the ugly sides of communications technology and its onslaught on the family institution.
My recent engagement with our Japanese counterpart has brought to our attention that Japan’s senior citizens aged 100 years and above have reached 60,000 within the space of about 35 years or so. This poses a pressing question regarding our society’s preparedness to face a potentially similar situation as our country is projected to become an aging nation by 2030, in just a little over 10 years from now. Some of our older citizens have good health, but most of them have their own set of issues and challenges. Of course, the ideal scenario would be for the children to take care of their elderly parents and we would like to keep this traditional family values intact. However, families too are getting smaller and in this case, institutionalisation or old folks homes become the convenient choice. Given that most institutions are run by the government, this exerts a constraint and financial burden on the government. This, coupled with the struggle to find people who are willing to work in the caregiving industry and also taking into account the finding of a study by EPF that shows people do not save enough to stay out of poverty after retirement. Inevitably, this will present a huge challenge in the years to come.
So today, with the changing world, our tasks at the ministry are faced with not just many but also new and emerging challenges. We are dealing with numerous social issues every day and these issues have also become increasingly complex. In most of the cases we see, the primary cause is the breakdown of family institutions and this is something that we need to focus on. To look at ways to ensure our family institutions remain cohesive and functional. This needs everyone’s participation and full commitment, including the civil society, to work out viable solutions. The ministry or the government alone cannot do it.
Sustainable Development Goals
Women play a critical role in all of the SDGs apart from the stand-alone Goal 5 of gender equality. In this country, we are lucky because in terms of access to education, both boys and girls are at par. In fact, when it comes to secondary and tertiary education, girls are doing better than boys. But the question that follows is—why is this not reflected into our labour force participation rate? Why is it not reflected in boardrooms? Although the labour force participation rate of females in Malaysia grew 0.2 percentage points to 55.3% in Q2 of 2018, we are still behind our ASEAN counterparts such as Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Studies have also demonstrated the positive impact that women can offer to their organisations. For example, when they make up half of the population, it just makes good sense for organisations to engage them so as to benefit from the full talent pool of qualified workers. There is also this opportunity loss to the country in terms of untapped resources when women are not included and empowered to participate in the country’s development. Work-life imbalance, sexual harassment, gender bias, and discrimination are just some of the challenges that need to be addressed. The labour participation profile for Malaysian women also displays just a ‘single peak’, indicating that Malaysian women do not return to work once they leave upon having a family. Those who do stay however continually face the dual burden of caregiving and breadwinning.
But then again, these are issues that cannot be tackled solely by our ministry. The challenges of sticky floors and glass ceilings still pose a real obstacle to women participation in the labour market. The high cost of childcare, for instance, often pulls women out of the workforce. Employers who want qualified workers should reform effort to attract them, and the setting up of good quality and affordable day care centres for children at or near the workplace is one of the things that can entice female employees. Similarly, the same measures can also be adopted to retain competent, skilled and trained female employees.
However, the setting up of good support systems such as day care centres should not be viewed from the narrow perspective of alleviating ‘care burden’ or just a social issue involving women. It should be seen from the economic viewpoint and a national issue too because women are still under-represented in the workforce. We must see this in terms of human capital development from both—the perspective of the child and the mother. Quality early childhood care and education are vital and critical to further the progress of the country’s human capital and has exceptionally high future return on investment (ROI). Similarly, this is a high yielding ROI in terms of talent attraction and retention as women make up almost half of the country’s population. We need good talent, irrespective of gender, where both men and women need to participate equally in the economy.
Technology and the future of society
The 4th Industrial Revolution is giving rise to the emergence of many disruptive new technologies impacting our society. Various implications are at stake, and consequently, the Japanese are already talking about Society 5.0 and comparing it to Malaysia, where are we in the whole equation?
There is thus a need to look into how we can take advantage of emerging new technologies for the benefits of our society. Today we see many attempts to humanise technology, machines and systems to improve the consumer experience. At McDonalds overseas for example, touch screens are beginning to replace frontline workers. But sometimes concerns such as hygiene come into question as too many hands can lead to dirty screens. Technology can also be leveraged upon to help those with disabilities to work and earn income for themselves. For instance, robot waiters which are controlled by people with disabilities (PWDs) using robotics technology and artificial interlligence (AI) or as simple as enabling them to work from home.
In the caregiving industry, Japan is increasingly turning to AI and robotics as they face a shortage of human caregivers to care for their older citizens and PWDs. In the context of our society, we still need to exercise some caution when it comes to adopting technologies from abroad, as we have our own values to hold on to. Robot carers could offer companionship for our older citizens and befriend them. Nevertheless, these advantages should not replace the role of adult children to love and give attention to their elderly parents, whether they live in retirement homes or on their own.
For example, Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat or JKM, an agency under the Ministry, manages several Rumah Seri Kenangans that take care of our elderly citizens. Whether we admit it or not, there’s good support there. There are caregivers to take care of you, and residents get a sense of community by having the companionship of other fellow residents. They can talk to each other and carry out their own activities together. Nevertheless, this should not in any way compensate for a loving family environment as well as those who choose to live out the rest of the lives in retirement homes. This refers to people who choose to stay within their community or their own homes as they age. When people are living longer, the ‘empty nest’ syndrome is something that we need to look into to ensure our senior citizens’ quality of life is not adversely affected. These are just some of the things that we are working on to come up with a holistic approach that can adequately address the delicate situation around our ageing population.
With the rising proportion of our ageing and retired communities, we cannot compromise on providing a safe environment for the elderly. Today, we are also seeing trends whereby housing developers have developed new residential concepts of inclusive living that cater to the diverse needs of our society. We now see dwellings that can cater to both the needs of young families and their older family members that allow for both—interactions and privacy.
We have also heard in some countries, things such as motion sensors, the trends in the usage of water, and even flushing toilets is being used as an indicator to monitor the elderly and also those with special needs. There is also the use of big data analytics by authorities to help provide insights and in order to make informed decisions in terms of service provision for all segments of society.
On the part of the government, the universal design concept aims to increase the quality of life for a wide range of citizens including PWDs, children, and women in addition to older citizens. This is where we need the cooperation of local authorities to ensure that amenities are easily accessible and inclusive. This takes a concerted effort, and not just the responsibility of the government alone but also the public, local authorities, planners, developers and all stakeholders.
Community-based Organisation and Participation
To date, we have engaged and collaborated with numerous community-based organisations including NGOs across a wide range of programmes. This is subject to policy guidelines to ensure good governance is in place. The Japanese government too has provided us a very good example of this. The rapid ageing of their population has reshaped their healthcare and welfare systems. Currently, they have a combination of public and private funding and they have created comprehensive pension and insurance systems. At the same time, the systems are strongly supported by Japanese family institutions as well as the local community to cater adequately to their welfare recipients.
People nowadays talk about 60 being the new 40 as the new norm. In relative terms, with the aid of medical advancement, life expectancy is increasing. A large percentage of this group is actually still in their productive phase—including ageing citizens who possess good health. So, how can we fine-tune this scenario? How do we put their knowledge and skills to better use? I can see there is a movement out there where retirees are coming forward to contribute back to the society. They do so through volunteering, joining NGOs and other community-based organisations. They are making use of their professional skills or even just sharing their wisdom and experience with the public and especially with the younger generation.
We would like to see more older citizens come forward not only to participate in meaningful activities with their own peers but also to encourage more inter-generation interactions especially in urban areas. A large amount of work in other countries has shown the benefits of such programmes to both the young and old. Older citizens benefit from having a new sense of purpose, learning about new technologies, trends and experience by looking at life from a younger perspective. Young people, in turn, especially those from vulnerable groups, benefit from having more attention and mentoring as a result of participation in these meaningful engagements. This will also support the upholding of our family institutions while at the same time, help preserve our cultures, traditional values and mutual respect for one another.
Another segment of the society that the ministry is looking after is the younger cohort under the age of 18. We can understand the challenges that families especially urbanites are facing nowadays as many parents are busy to make ends meet. It is unfortunate that as a consequence, the country’s future generation gets neglected. To address this, the ministry, through Lembaga Penduduk dan Pembangunan Keluarga Negara or LPPKN, another agency under the ministry, has developed a programme called Kafe@TEEN Adolescent Centre. This is a safe transit-like place for school children to spend their after-school hours while waiting for their parents.
The programme allows our young to get to know themselves better by improving their understanding, awareness and skills, especially teenagers by means of constant interactions with our centre volunteers. The education modules are carried out by a group of experts and volunteers—doctors, nurses, counsellors and educators who are well trained and experienced in dealing with teenage issues such as sexuality and reproductive health, healthy diet, personal development and many other key areas. This is important as teenage years are a turbulent transition period with physical and emotional changes that need to be addressed to ensure all-inclusive development of our young people.
Moving forward, the ‘third sector’ should become a vital component of a fair and enterprising society, where individuals and communities feel empowered and enabled to achieve change to meet social and environmental needs. Therefore, the ministry wants to continue to work together with all stakeholders to create the conditions where organisations can play an effective role together at the heart of today’s social and environmental changes. At the ministry, we were among the first to engage regularly with numerous NGOs and international organisations especially those under the purview of the United Nations to work together on programmes that cater to our multi-segment target groups.
We are always actively looking out for groups that we can work with especially from the private sector. We welcome everyone to help us make a difference to touch the varying needs of our diverse target groups.
Roles of government
There is a lot in the ministry’s to-do-list and it is hard to prioritise between one target group to another. Our biggest target groups include women, children, the older citizens and PWDs. We cannot address them in silos. They are all interrelated.
The ministry is constantly on the lookout for best practices to be adopted in our planning, policies and programmes. For instance, the concept of Maqasid Syariah has been well adapted and adopted across our work. The preservation of the five elements that consist of religion, life, intellect, lineage and property or wealth is being translated into numerous policies and programmes. Our collaboration with the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) commenced several years ago where we were one of the pilot ministries that was involved in the measurement of the Malaysian Syariah Index—an index that measures the Syariah metrics across eight main aspects around legislation, politics, economics, education, health, culture, infrastructure and socioeconomics. The idea is holistic in nature and it is applicable to every Malaysian and it strongly lives up to the spirit of muhibbah.
We are also working with organisations such as UNICEF, UNDP and other government agencies as well as several NGOs to come up with meaningful programmes to promote the best interests of our young. As such, we are piloting two initiatives this year called Diversion and Family-based Care. Diversion is an alternative to institutionalisation whereby our young who are caught for minor offences are given a second chance to reflect on their offences and make amends through community service instead of being detained or placed into corrective institutions. Family based care is another initiative to empower families to care for their children through a number of intervention programmes instead of opting for the easy way out through institutionalisation or rehabilitative centres. This is something that we learn from the work being carried out in other countries. These approaches will focus on strengthening family institutions where togetherness, family bonding time and support are highly valued by family members. Again, a strong family institution is key.
As a developing country, we can see much of the society’s development is weighted heavily toward urban areas. However, with today’s advancement in technology, hyper connectivity has allowed us to narrow the digital divides between urban and rural areas. However, to what extent such development has improved the quality of life among rural folks is still very much up for debate. Malaysia should define her own criteria of success and strive to develop her own pathway to align the country’s development goals to its most treasured family values.