By Jason Loh
THE establishment of the Free Business Region – a direct translation from “Wilayah Bebas Berniaga”/WBB – or colloquially referred to as “free trade area(s)” for traders (or micro businesses) under the initiative of the Minister for Federal Territories Tan Sri Annuar Musa is a right and good policy and which reflects the caring (prihatin) and empathetic character of the Government.
Set against the backdrop of the on-going economic impact of COVID-19, WBB enables and empowers traders, particularly those who are ordinarily residents of Kuala Lumpur except for Putrajaya where residency requirement is mandatory by Putrajaya Corporation, to operate without the usual legal and regulatory constraints.
Nonetheless, it’s been reported (Malay Mail, Feb 4) recently that Kuala Lumpur City Hall (Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur/DBKL) officers have issued compound notices under the Licensing of Hawkers (Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur) By-Laws 2016 to eleven traders in the WBB at Jalan Desa Rejang 1, Setapak (under the parliamentary constituency of Setiawangsa) because they were found to be without the temporary operating licences. This was in conjunction with a movement control order (MCO 2.0) special action operation.
While the DBKL officers were merely carrying out their duty, a special case could be made to the authorities, especially the Minister for Federal Territories Tan Sri Annuar Musa, to relax enforcement measures as long as there’s compliance to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) both in terms of hygiene (personal-wise and public health) and other essential conditions.
But firstly, what is the basics of the concept of the WBB?
It means that all traders need to do is to apply for a temporary operating license from DBKL, Putrajaya Corporation or Labuan Corporation to operate in the authorised/zoned areas and comply with the SOPs. The temporary operating license is non-transferable and limited to locals only.
As such, the concept of the WBB presents job opportunities, albeit via self-employment, for locals – whether as full-time or part-time – at this time of economic uncertainty and pessimism due to continuation of the MCO (including also in its main variations ie, conditional and recovery) which has resulted in certain sectors badly affected such as tourism and services.
According to Tan Sri Annuar Musa, approximately 3,000 applications were received as of Dec 2020, with nearly 2000 applications given the license to operate. More applications are expected to be received in 2021 as WBB has proven to be successful – providing not only a viable and sustainable income source but also as a flexible avenue or even “improvised” market that’s made more convenient and accessible for buyers and consumers due to their site and location.
An analogy could be made here: COVID-19 has accelerated the physical fragmentation of the supply chain processes – end-to-end – leading to a low touch economy whereby the physical intermediary, eg, such as a restaurant is no longer part of the equation.
Likewise, the WBB has fragmented the physical marketplace so that it’s now more spread out thereby providing more choice and access in terms of location for consumers wary of crowd concentration and possibility of close contact due to space constraints, for example.
Moving back to the issue at hand, ie, the need for authorities to be more empathetic in their enforcement activities as long as the basics are in place.
Within the looser regulatory framework of the WBB, authorities should equally adopt a flexible attitude and approach in dealing with non-compliance. Just like the concept of the WBB, a temporary paradigm shift is needed on the part of the authorities.
Non-compliance, therefore, shouldn’t be based on typical bureaucratic procedures such as licensing at this time of the on-going COVID-19 epidemic. But it should be based on public health and economic considerations.
Meaning that, non-compliance in this context is all about whether the trader fulfils the public health requirements and meets the economic needs of society (as part of the other basic conditions).
Netizens would recall an incident outside of the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur that viralled over social media involving a young man who occupied an empty car park lot to sell drinks.
Netizens’ outcry of injustice over the threat of enforcement by the local authorities was unmistakable. The video also captured a senior citizen expressing both her empathy and outrage over the incident.
In fact, we could well add her bewilderment as to such purported stringency and inflexibility given the hardships so many are having to endure coming from the economic impact of COVID-19.
It’s also noteworthy that what could have amounted to a near-brush with the law, not only did the enforcement authorities finally relented but at the end of the day, the young man was able to sell many bottles from his car boot, thanks to sympathetic and empathetic customers.
The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research’s (MIER)’s Fourth Quarter (2020) Consumer Sentiments Survey Report has revealed that “household finances at year-end [were] the weakest in nine months with respondents who reported being worse-off than before … rose to a three-quarter high of 42%, even surpassing the previous year’s 40%.”
The findings are in sync with EMIR Research’ own 4Q 2020 poll results in which many Malaysians appear to continue living in a state of uncertainty about the viability of the country’s economy.
Nearly five out of 10 are unsure whether the country’s economy is on a strong footing – which translates into 45%.
EMIR Research, on our part, has been calling for the economics of empathy – to be translated across all of Government and the whole of policy-making and policy-enforcement.
In addition to the enforcement authorities from DBKL, we also strongly plead with other local authorities to refrain from taking action that would jeopardise people’s sources of income and means to put food on the table as well as sustain themselves and their families in other areas also.
It’s hoped that the concept of the WBB would be replicated in other major urbans areas in other states, and, therefore, enforcement can take place accordingly, i.e., with regard to the basics under an unprecedented and emergency (darurat) situation (and not under typical or ordinary circumstances).
By taking a step back in the name of empathy, enforcement authorities (whether within the WBB or outside as in other states) can – so long as the basics are complied with – go a long way to help the many of our fellow citizens who are suffering under the weight of unprecedented times brought about by what’s now an endemic COVID-19 and its on-going impact across all aspects of our life. – Feb 7, 2021
Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.
Photo credit:Kuala Lumpur City Hall