KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian civil servants were among the beneficiaries of the recently tabled budget, receiving generous handouts from the government, which has led to questions about whether they are being wooed ahead of a general election.
Given its large size, the civil service has often been seen as an important vote bank.
Under the budget, some 1.3 million civil servants, who are mostly from the majority Malay community, will receive a bonus of RM700 (S$227) each and be entitled to an additional five days' leave. They will also be eligible for low-interest loans to buy computers and smartphones.
Sunway University economics professor Yeah Kim Leng described the benefits as "not surprising", given that a general election was expected next year.
"Pocketbook voters in the large civil servant voting bloc will be predominantly inclined towards returning the favour shown by the government," Dr Yeah told The Straits Times.
He believes the budget had many "touchpoints", to the extent that allocations to various groups were spread too thinly.
"Hence, larger cash aid for hard-hit vulnerable groups, poor households and small and medium enterprises, higher wage subsidies and bigger allocations for rebuilding self-employed business, health and education sectors could have been made," he said.
There has also been criticism that the budget was "bumiputera-centric", with some complaining that other races seemed to have been left out.
"Perks" extended to bumiputeras - a demographic encompassing the Malay-Muslim majority in the country and aboriginal tribes - included RM6.6 billion for their education programmes, RM4.8 billion for capacity-building in the community, and RM100 million in matching grants for their SMEs in the aerospace industry.
Conversely, only RM290 million was allocated to improve infrastructure in Chinese new villages and RM145 million to the Indian community for socio-cultural-economic programmes under the Malaysian Indian Transformation Unit.
"How is it that this Keluarga Malaysia budget has allocated billions to Malays and bumiputeras but just millions to the Chinese and Indians?" said Mr Wong Chen, an opposition Member of Parliament from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
He was referring to a concept dubbed the Malaysian Family comprising all races in multicultural Malaysia introduced by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
Professor James Chin from the University of Tasmania's Asia Institute also said the touchpoints of the budget point to the possibility of an election next year.
"This is an election budget. Not only that a lot is given to the civil servants, but the government is also pouring a lot of money into the bumiputera agenda so I fully expect the election to be held some time next year, probably after the money has been disbursed," he told ST.
Sociopolitical analyst Awang Azman Pawi from Universiti Malaya, however, disagreed, saying it was inaccurate to describe it as an election budget.
"The government knows the importance of civil servants, they need to be taken care of as they're the backbone of an administration - it's the driving force, regardless of ideology and political party," he told ST.
"No matter who the government is, they have to be friendly to the civil servants. And if we compare, the bonus given to civil servants under PM Ismail is quite small, which is RM750, whereas during Pak Lah's time, they received two months' salary as a bonus," Dr Awang added, referring to former prime minister Abdullah Badawi.
Professor Chin also believes the budget has been detrimental to the opposition, which he said made a mistake by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Mr Ismail in September under which the government agreed to enact reforms, such as preventing lawmakers from party-hopping, in return for the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) bloc backing or abstaining in confidence votes and supply Bills.
"This has come back to haunt the PH. The MoU has helped Mr Ismail stay in power and come up with an election budget to help him win the next election," said Prof Chin.
Handouts to civil servants and bumiputeras
- RM6.6 billion for bumiputera education programmes
- RM4.8 billion for bumiputera capacity-building programmes
- RM100 million in matching grants for bumiputera SMEs in the aerospace industry
- RM1.3 billion set aside for a special one-off bonus of RM700 each to 1.3 million civil servants in Grade 56 and below
- A RM350 payment to one million retirees
- Five additional days of unrecorded leave for civil servants
- Concessionary 2 per cent to 4 per cent interest rate for civil servants seeking loans for buying computers and smartphones
- Increased allowance for volunteer police of RM2 an hour, benefiting 10,000 officers