KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's budget on Friday (Nov 6) could be the largest in its history, as the embattled Muhyiddin Yassin government will have to preserve people's lives and livelihoods, and boost the economy too, amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
While a substantial amount of funds would be channelled towards tackling the pandemic and supporting front-line workers, help must also be given to the vulnerable as well as businesses so they can drive growth and aid in recovery next year.
Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz has said that the allocation for Budget 2021 will be bigger than the RM297 billion (S$97 billion) Budget 2020, and that the government will not be cutting back on development spending.
"I think this is the most important budget in our history... we are going through the worst crisis," Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul was quoted as saying by New Straits Times daily on Wednesday.
Some economists think it could be an election budget.
"In view of the worsening political instability by the day, Budget 2021 could well be an election budget as there is a high chance of a snap general election some time in the first half of next year once the pandemic is brought under control, coinciding with the time when a safe and effective vaccine hits the market," Mr Azrul Azwar, an economist with a state government-linked company, told The Straits Times.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin's Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact holds a slim majority in Parliament, and its expenditure plan could be challenged by political rivals seeking to unseat his government. Even if the Budget passes, threats from PN allies to withdraw their support and no-confidence motions by the opposition could still trigger a snap election.
Analysts say among the top priorities would be widening the social safety net, protecting the urban poor and bolstering the healthcare sector, all of which have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government could make an allocation to fund unemployment insurance and wage subsidies.
"It should be the largest budget deficit, both in absolute size and as a percentage of gross domestic product," said Professor Woo Wing Thye, an economist at the University of California and a research professor at Sunway University.
He hopes to see a budget that contains a direct infusion of purchasing power into the economy through government spending, changes in regulations that lower the cost of living, and incentives to support an economic recovery.
With 5.6 per cent of households in absolute poverty and 16.9 per cent in relative poverty, results from a UN study released last week showed many low-income households have become worse off after the pandemic hit and require urgent social protection. Absolute poverty is when one cannot afford to buy basic necessities while relative poverty compares a household's economic standing against others.
"It is critical that we take the opportunities created by the 2021 budget and 12th Malaysia Plan to rethink social protection in Malaysia, to ensure that no family, and no child, is left behind," said Unicef Malaysia representative Rashed Mustafa Sarwar.
Four stimulus packages worth RM305 billion have been rolled out by Mr Muhyiddin's government this year to cushion the Covid-19 impact.
Fiscal deficits could be around or may even surpass RM90 billion, with fiscal deficit-to-GDP ratios easily in excess of 6 per cent both in 2020 and 2021, said Mr Azrul.
Mr Muhyiddin said a substantial amount of funds would be set aside to tackle the pandemic, and support front-line workers.
"We will do it now and continue to do it until Covid-19 is over," he told Bernama and local television stations on Wednesday.
Allocations would need to be made for Covid-19 vaccine procurement, but some experts hope Malaysia will finally look into developing human vaccines for diseases.
"There are so many things that are required for Covid-19, but I am sure the government has already set aside funding for fighting the pandemic and to procure vaccines," Professor Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, an epidemiologist with Universiti Malaya, told ST.
He said he hoped to see allocations for the development of fast and reliable Covid-19 diagnostics, which would reduce Malaysia's dependence on foreign tests, and funding for the research and development of human vaccines.
Malaysia's economy dived into its first contraction in the second quarter of this year, recording its worst performance in nearly 22 years, but has since shown signs of recovery, with the central bank expecting further improvement in 2021.