Malaysia's largest budget may not be enough to ease pain amid pandemic

Malaysians hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic are hoping that some of the promises in next year's budget will help them keep their finances above water. Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said a raft of measures in the budget is aimed at the botto
Malaysians hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic are hoping that some of the promises in next year's budget will help them keep their finances above water. Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said a raft of measures in the budget is aimed at the bottom and middle 40 per cent of earners. PHOTO: REUTERS

Malaysia's largest budget, unveiled last week, came with big promises to ease public pain amid the Covid-19 nightmare, but criticisms of its limitations have been coming in fast and furious.

While politicians criticised a proposed large outlay to revive a government propaganda unit and push for blanket bank loan moratoriums, the public sees nuggets of aid coming their way but also the lack of a comprehensive safety net for the most vulnerable.

The RM322.5 billion (S$105.4 billion) Budget 2021 is 2.5 per cent more than this year's expenditure, despite several stimulus packages already rolled out this year by the Muhyiddin Yassin administration.

Malaysians hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic are hoping that some of the promises in next year's budget will help them keep their finances above water.

Madam Hafizah Husni, 38, a cleaner and single mother of three, said that with her earnings cut due to fewer jobs being available, she can no longer pay for childcare when she does go out to work.

The government said it would spend RM20 million to set up childcare centres for lower-income families, and Madam Hafizah, who falls into the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysia's income earners, or B40, hopes that this means she will be able to breathe a little easier.

"I worry a lot about my children's safety - they have to take care of themselves alone at home. This would really put my mind at ease," she told The Straits Times.

Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, who unveiled the budget on Nov 6, said that a raft of measures is aimed at the B40 and the middle 40 per cent of earners, or M40.

The government needs to move fast, as nearly 32,500 companies registered under the Companies Commission of Malaysia, the majority of them being micro-entrepreneurs, have folded since March, when movement curbs were first implemented.

Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul on Thursday defended the budget, saying the B40 group is entitled to an automatic bank loan moratorium for three months, or they could reduce monthly instalment payments for their loans by 50 per cent for six months.

The M40 group would be offered bank loan repayment assistance if their incomes have been cut.

With these groups in mind, the government will also allocate RM3.7 billion to create 500,000 job opportunities through hiring incentives, retraining programmes and wage subsidies.

Reskilling and upskilling programmes are expected to benefit 200,000 graduates, including workers in Sabah and Johor who lost their jobs owing to border closures between Malaysia and Singapore.

With online sales booming, grants worth RM150 million will be dished out to help businesses go online.

"The virus outbreak made me realise how important it is for businesses to have a strong online presence. I was almost forced to shut mine down because I relied heavily on sales via my physical shop," beauty product seller Nadia Rusli, 36, told The Straits Times.

With Malaysia having more than 400,000 households whose earnings are below the poverty line, the budget aims to raise aid given to low-income families.

Households with a monthly income of less than RM2,500 will receive a one-time payment of between RM1,200 and RM1,800. Households with a monthly income of RM2,501 to RM4,000 will receive RM800 to RM1,200.

While many welcome these proposals, others say the government could do better, by setting up food banks, for example.

"I love the upskilling and reskilling initiative they announced. It would greatly help people like me to secure a job," said carpet cleaner Michael Nadarajah. "But I feel we also need more food banks so that when push comes to shove, we have somewhere to get immediate help from."

The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) on Thursday urged the government to provide laptops to more students from low-income families.

Under a budget proposal, government-linked companies would give RM150 million to provide laptops to 150,000 students in 500 schools as a pilot project.

"There are about five million students nationwide... if only 150,000 of them from 500 schools receive the laptops, the numbers are relatively small," said NUTP's secretary-general Harry Tan Huat Hock.

A United Nations study conducted from May to September revealed that 7 per cent of upper secondary-age students in Malaysia have not returned to school although the government reopened educational institutions in May.

Some Malaysians are worried about where their next meal will come from. Grab delivery man Nasrul Ibrahim Musa said that while he is happy with the cash aid he is entitled to, he is more concerned about securing a stable job.

Like many others, the 26-year-old mechanical engineering graduate was laid off this year.

Malaysia's unemployment rate was 4.6 per cent in September, after having hit a record high of 5.3 per cent in May.

"Yes, getting cash is nice but I'd rather have a stable job. I've gone to countless interviews but potential employers are only offering part-time gigs," Mr Nasrul told The Straits Times. "At the same time, there are already too many delivery men. Where do people like me go?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2020, with the headline 'Malaysia's largest budget may not be enough to ease pain amid pandemic'. Print Edition | Subscribe