The pandemic not only unearthed the weaknesses within our global infrastructures, but it also brought worldwide systems under a microscope. The world over, nations have recognised the areas severely lacking attention and have made haste to put better mechanics and structures into place to support their communities. However, vulnerable groups are still slipping through the cracks and for many, COVID is the least of their worries as families continue struggling to afford the roof over their heads and food on their table.
As the bottom 40% of Malaysian household incomes (B40) grow into the B60, RYTHM Foundation, the QI Group’s social impact arm, has been observing the detrimental impact of the pandemic on communities across Malaysia through its on-ground philanthropic activities. Focused on playing a proactive role to identify and mitigate areas of concern, the foundation acknowledged the urgency that is necessary to address the needs of communities in Malaysia during the pandemic.
Head of RYTHM Foundation, Santhi Periasamy said, “Being stalwart advocates of collaborations and using partnerships as a modus operandi to achieve objectives in a productive and impactful way, we explored the idea of this symposium as a platform to deliberate on the cause, effect and the way forward through this disaster that has caught us off-guard. Now more than ever, it is time for us to rise as enshrined by our ethos, RYTHM – Raise Yourself to Help Mankind.”
The first-ever in-house stakeholder symposium was held in late February 2021 with ten prominent speakers who engaged in discourse about the challenges that have arisen or become more glaring due to the pandemic and to identify potential approaches moving forward. The discussion was focused on health and sanitisation, livelihood, education, counselling, and economic stability. However, a single-day symposium could not even begin to cover the multitude of challenges affecting at-risk Malaysians as a result of living amidst the pandemic for the past 18 months.
Therefore, the foundation coordinated a follow up symposium to continue the discussion on addressing community needs in Malaysia, this time with a focus on the role of non-government organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders. The second symposium was held across two days on 26 & 27 August to have a more in-depth discussion with various authorities on the topics previously covered in the first symposium. This latest symposium also included the addition of sessions to discuss gender-based violence & statelessness.
Officiating the launch of the symposium, Chairperson of RYTHM Foundation, Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran said in her opening speech, “There is much more that can be done when we come together as a larger and stronger voice and being part of a symposium of this nature. There is a need for increased focus on reaching the most vulnerable and the government’s efforts need to be complemented with that of the private sector.”
The objective of the symposium was to be a functional platform where various representatives of different segments of society could come together to share their insight from working on the ground with the communities most in need. These insights will be compiled into a position paper that zooms in on the very real issues faced by these communities and outlining informative, comprehensive and practical solutions to manage these issues.
Throughout the 2-day symposium, various ideas were put forth by the speakers who are experts in their field and actively working on the ground to support vulnerable communities since before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
On the topic of aiding the underserved indigenous communities through health and sanitisation amidst the pandemic, speakers Tracy Soidi, a Senior Programme Officer for Good Shepherd Services and Andrew Sebastian the CEO & Founder of Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY), agreed that there needs to be recognition of the indigenous as a vulnerable community and more inclusion of representatives from these communities in discussions about their needs.
“Health is a right for everyone whether they are indigenous or not. It’s a human right so we need to look into helping these communities and empowering them to have more of a voice regarding their rights in healthcare,” said Tracy.
On the other hand, speakers Kon Onn Sein, the managing director of Yayasan Kajian dan Pembangunan Masyarakat and Manokaran Mottain, the chief economist of Alliance Bank highlighted the need for economic democracy to decrease the wealth disparity and to address economic systems in order to create a more equitable and financially stable society.
Dr. Donnie Adams Paramasivam from Universiti Malaya and Associate Professor Dr. Hasnah Toran from University Kebangsaan Malaysia also zoomed in on the challenges of online learning for special needs children during their sessions, with emphasis on the cooperation between parents and teachers for the students’ well-being.
“Previously, it was that teachers cannot influence what happens at home and parents cannot influence what happens in school. Now we see that there cannot be a division, there needs to be collaboration,” said Dr Donnie.
When it came to the subject of gender-based violence and surviving during the pandemic, Amy Bala, the lead on child protection at the Engender Consultancy and Rozana Isa, the executive director of Sisters in Islam, discussed the domestic violence shadow pandemic that has grown alongside COVID19. They emphasised the need for a stronger infrastructure with trained social workers to empower women and families in these situations.
“We need to empower women with the knowledge that they are not second-class citizens and that they have equal rights under the federal constitution,” said Rozana.
Maalini Ramalo, the director of social protection of the Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA) & Dr. Hartini Zainudin, child activist and the founder of the Yayasan Chow Kit both highlighted just how dire the situation has been for the stateless community. Dr Hartini stressed that community involvement and advocacy is crucial to highlighting the plight of the stateless to policymakers.
Whilst mental health might be the last thing on most people’s minds amidst the challenges of living through the pandemic, the session on the topic proved otherwise as we spoke to Dr. Raagidhasakti, the managing director of the Green Wings Psychology Center and Kenny Lim, the executive director of Befrienders Kuala Lumpur. The last session of the symposium saw these experts discuss the urgent need for imparting emotional literacy skills to build the mental resilience of society as well as the importance of raising awareness to breakdown deeply ingrained stigmas and myths attached to mental health.
The symposium certainly proved to be fruitful for attendees of the symposium. Head of Purchasing & Product Development of QNET, Evelyn Chan said it was an insightful two days for her: “As a single parent, I could totally relate to the topics being discussed, and I found the sessions on education, statelessness, and mental health the most captivating. The ideas and perspectives shared by the guest speakers were definitely beneficial,” she said. Another attendee, Gunasegaran Kandaswamy, a MYKITA Advisor, also shared that he is eagerly anticipating the recommendations from the symposium that will be put forth to the relevant agencies, “I hope we get to see some of these resolutions suggested today implemented.”
The findings from both the symposium sessions will supplement a summary report comprising the issues raised by NGOs, discussion points, and recommendations for addressing these concerns. The report will be shared with relevant stakeholders and policymakers in the hopes of facilitating more informed decisions and tailoring appropriate strategic planning to manage crucial issues that have a social and economic impact on the communities in Malaysia.
“Surviving the pandemic is one thing but how we meet and greet the new norm is another thing. Therein lies our true vindication in terms of how prepared we will be for the new norm with this blueprint for the future,’ said Datuk Vijay Eswaran, the chairman of the QI Group.
During the closing ceremony of the symposium, Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran said, “The purpose of this second symposium is to support the government of Malaysia’s efforts to mitigate the direct and indirect impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups as well as the communities at large through the generation of high-quality thoughts and recommendations of stakeholders. Deriving input from individuals and groups who have gotten their feet wet on the ground and approaching the matter in academic ways makes a remarkable difference.”