Anwar warns civil service to tighten spending as Malaysia braces for ‘uncomfortable’ year

Mr Anwar Ibrahim is set to table the country’s revised 2023 budget to Parliament on Feb 24. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has been signalling his government’s seriousness in plugging budget leaks and making every ringgit count as Malaysia braces itself for global economic headwinds in 2023.

During the budget 2023 dialogue at the finance ministry on Tuesday, Datuk Seri Anwar said he had already identified how RM3 billion to RM4 billion (S$915 million to S$1.2 billion) could have been saved had the defence ministry been more careful with its procurement procedures.

“Whether it’s related to security of the land, sea or air, there is a responsibility to ensure the best equipment is proposed and negotiated for, without political interference or the interest of vendors,” said Mr Anwar, who is also Finance Minister.

Malaysia’s debt and liabilities stand at about RM1.5 trillion, while the budget deficit was at about 5.8 per cent of gross domestic product in 2022, he noted, adding that 2023’s fiscal position “won’t be comfortable”.

“The government must accept this fact. It cannot be business as usual, we cannot be content,” he said, adding that the maximum debt service is already approaching a level beyond what the country can manage.

His speech on Tuesday was largely about reining in wastage, debt and procurement, especially in the military.

Numerous delays or non-delivery of billions of dollars in defence orders have been in the glare of publicity in recent years.

These include six littoral combat ships commissioned for RM6 billion in 2011 by the Royal Malaysian Navy for the patrol of the country’s shoreline. The first ship was supposed to be delivered in 2019 and the final one in 2023, but none has been delivered.

Mr Anwar is set to table the revised 2023 budget to Parliament on Feb 24, with his administration’s top priority being to protect low- and middle-income groups amid inflation and the escalating cost of living.

On Monday, he said Malaysia is expediting the distribution of RM1.67 billion in cash aid to the poor this quarter.

The government will retain certain items in the budget tabled by the previous administration – which had not been passed, as Parliament was dissolved soon after – while making necessary changes to some to reflect the voters’ wishes, he said.

Mr Anwar, who has been in office for nearly two months, said the new government has already seen about RM4 billion in leakages from a flood project alone and can save about RM10 billion in the procurement system. 

He has also ordered agencies to speed up public works approvals, and said the country intends to expedite priority projects while plugging leakages in its review of the 2023 budget.

The government will prioritise ramping up the nation’s participation in technology and the green economy, and also focus on boosting small and medium enterprises while maintaining fiscal discipline.

He said no landmarks will be built to mark his administration, as Kuala Lumpur has enough landmarks as it is. “There’s the (Petronas) Twin Towers, TRX (Tun Razak Exchange). I do not want to compete. Under Anwar, I don’t intend to leave such a mark.”

The Premier also said on Monday that “many questionable files” have been uncovered within the government, especially at the finance ministry.

Acknowledging that civil servants may sometimes get caught in a bind when given directives by their superiors, he urged them to speak out in such instances. “My emphasis is on enforcement... I have given clear instructions that if there is even a single instance of minutes – even from the Prime Minister himself – that violates the law, I have to be informed first,” he said, adding that violations of rules and regulations by the government have tarnished the sector.

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