Twenty days after presenting the nation’s budget for 2021 Malaysian Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz must have realised that on November 6 he had rather ceremoniously opened a can of worms. The budget proposals he presented have received extensive scrutiny and have generated the greatest opposition and have often courted speculation on the sustainability and very survival of his government.
The proposals had some positive elements in the sense they were largely populist. It had even been called an election budget. It was targeted at a substantial segment of the population on the basis, as pointed out eloquently by Dato Seri Shafie Apdal and Dato Seri Khalid Samad and other MPs, of race, religion and region. It would seem the expectation of the fledgling government was that the budget would have electoral appeal which was essential for them to remain in power.
This preoccupation with remaining in office and possibly being re-elected in spite of attaining such office through backdoor means seems to have been the overriding factor in the various allocations and allowances announced. To satisfy such a narrow and sectional agenda the budget negated the larger overarching importance of the nation as a whole.


Restraint versus Recovery

Malaysia is currently placed in a rather precarious tightrope with the competing demands of the precautions against Covid-19 on one hand and the need to cater to the strong desire for a normal life, enhanced employment prospects and better earning capacity on the other.
Covid-19 has devastated the country. Other countries have been affected as well but the difference is that in Malaysia the current government is lacking in many important attributes. It is not remarkably representative of the whole of the country. Its legitimacy is consistently being questioned and it has resorted to every loophole in law and exercised every possible action to perpetuate its survival. The country is experiencing an unprecedented state of depression, deflation and difficulty.


Leadership Essential

It desperately needs enlightened leadership to inspire unity, recovery from the current imbroglio and negative economic growth.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s government, with due respect, has failed to inspire the nation into believing that these objectives are achievable. It lacks bright stars.
This was borne out by the budget proposals. PAS, a regional orthodox religious party which provides the vital few parliamentary seats for this government’s survival seems to have had an inordinate influence in the formulation of the budget.
The citadel of government in Putrajaya has succumbed to the storming by a few minor chieftains from the east coast states of Kelantan and Trengganu. They make up less than one tenth of the 222 MPs that make up the lower house but they seem to have imposed themselves rather imperiously on the whole nation.
This disturbing feature itself engenders feelings of injustice and alienation of at least half of the population. Zafrul should have recognised this serious flaw in his own government and addressed that issue more than anything else. He failed to do that.


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Flawed Budget

The budget further revealed the isolation, blinkered vision, detachment and the false sense of security and significance of the nine-month old government of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin.
Being in the hot seat of power the budget could have been a serious and solemn effort to reach out to every Malaysian and not just to a particular segment which is considered to be the majority. PAS, a relatively small political party has insidiously, it would seem, manipulated this majority into an unhealthy majoritarian situation, replicating what the Narendra Modi government has done in predominantly Hindu India.


Reset Required

Without relenting on the vital interests of the majority Malay-Muslim community the budget which is so focused on the the 3Rs – race, religion and rural voters- could have been balanced to obtain a better all round reception. This could have been done by highlighting the following 11Rs:
  1. Recovery for all the seriously affected areas of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially Sabah and Johor. Johor has the highest reliance on Singapore for full time and part time employment, tourism and a huge variety of supporting services. An extraordinary effort with financial outlays should have been made to enable Johor to steer out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sabah’s situation is untenable with unidentified Covid-19 cases because of the expanse of the region. More extensive testing was essential to assist the state.
  2. Resource allocation to all Malaysians, especially those on the lower economic strata. They need to tide over the duration of the pandemic’s contagion and move on. SMEs and single person-owned businesses that have suffered closure must be compensated to allow them to resuscitate.
  3. Research and Development: The country’s higher education system has been plagued by underfunding especially in the STEM area. The country’s premier university has had its budget slashed to a point where its operability has been rendered difficult. Its Medical Faculty, once one of the best in Southeast Asia needs the funding to keep it going and producing quality graduates and postgraduates. Adequate funding is needed for education in general and the emphasis and expenditure on religious subjects can be downplayed.
  4. Realignment of the Economy to meet post-Covid challenges by equipping Sabah and Sarawak with medical laboratories and facilities that are on par with the peninsula.
  5. Reasonable and wide ranging measures to address poverty on a needs- based rather than on a race based basis. Efforts should be deployed to acquire agricultural land for food production in Sabah and Sarawak. Food security should be prioritised so that the country’s high imported food bill is reduced.
  6. Rapid closure of all state owned business enterprises which have bled money for more than five years. Their functions can be privatised and handed to suitably qualified and capable Malaysians who have a sound business record.
  7. Regulating the growth of private international schools as they have become a scam for foreigners using them as a channel for employment.
  8. Repatriating gradually unemployed foreign workers and illegal immigrants. The Immigration Department is crucial in safeguarding the character of the country’s demographics and stern action must be taken to weed out suspected corrupt immigration and border security personnel.
  9. Re-examining the role of service providers who enjoy monopoly and near monopoly status. Monopolies can have access to the best legal eagles and their customers are subject to harassment and hardship because they, like Astro, write their complicated rules and impose them on unsuspecting customers.
  10. Reforestation: This should be a priority as the peninsular region is being subject to unusual weather patterns and the force of heavy thunderstorms with flash floods can only be mitigated with some planned reforestation. Water catchment areas have also to be expanded in keeping with the rising demands for water. Leakages resulting in water wastage have to be plugged and water and service charges have to be streamlined.
  11. Re-examine the policy of the courts which grant compensation for loss of earnings of 25 years when the government cancels projects. This is deeply flawed and an unnecessary burden on the government. For example recently the Melaka Gateway project was cancelled after the developer had incurred costs over a four-year period. By all means the company concerned must be compensated but it should not be on the basis of loss of earnings for 25 years. The critical Covid-19 situation is likely to result in the cancellation of many projects and the courts must seriously address the issue of a far lower quantum of compensation.
Given the indifference to the above issues the budget has received a response it richly deserved. It is good that the lawmakers have arrived at some kind of a consensus that will allow the budget to be passed well before the end of the year by the bicameral parliament.
It is in nobody’s interest to fail to reconcile the differences between the current government and the Opposition.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador