Malaysian PM Muhyiddin welcomes feedback for budget amid criticism for reviving propaganda machinery

Tan Sri Muhyiddin (above) is also thinking about inviting the opposition to sit in on some government meetings. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Saturday (Nov 7) called for bipartisan cooperation to refine the country's budget for next year, saying that he welcomed views that could benefit the public.

In an interview with television news channel Astro Awani, Tan Sri Muhyiddin said inclusiveness is needed as Budget 2021 "isn't for the government but for the rakyat (people)".

"Practising inclusiveness is good, no matter with whom. We're ready to receive any feedback and suggestion; we will observe and refine it," he said.

Mr Muhyiddin is also mulling the possibility of expanding bipartisan cooperation beyond Budget 2021, by inviting the opposition to sit in on some government meetings.

"For the next level, I'm thinking about inviting the opposition to be on the Economic Action Council, which I chair every week, or the meeting to manage Covid-19, which I chair every day. They can share their views if they feel the steps taken by us are ineffective.

"This is not about giving credit to them, but for the people to benefit from their views," he said.

This comes as the government has come under fire for the allocation of RM85.5 million to resurrect its propaganda arm - the Special Affairs Department, or Jasa.

In 2018, former ruling pact Barisan Nasional (BN) allocated RM30 million to the unit, which handles government communications.

Former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman on Friday (Nov 6) tweeted: "Unfortunately, the allocation to repair depleted schools has been reduced by RM58 million. The mental health allocation is only RM24 million."

Jasa was used by BN to attack detractors through so-called "cybertroopers" posting partisan messages online but it was abolished by the Mahathir Mohamad administration after Pakatan Harapan (PH) came to power in 2018.

Democratic Action Party's (DAP) secretary-general and former finance minister Lim Guan Eng said on Saturday: "In a normal democracy, there is no place for such a propaganda agency that uses public funds to spread lies and fake news.

"Parliamentary rules provide for the finance minister to represent the government to amend the Budget proposals. DAP calls on the prime minister and the government to commit publicly immediately to withdraw the allocation to Jasa if the government is sincere in seeking a Unity Budget."

Universiti Malaya's socio-political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi said it appears that the government is gearing up, through its new budget, for the next general election.

"The government's move to revive Jasa looks like it's trying to ensure that political communication runs smoothly. It also seems like it wants to avoid being in the same situation as PH, which had no communication machinery," he told The Straits Times.

"Hard to say if this (budget) is really meant to fight Covid-19 as it looks like an election budget - cash handouts and some schemes being re-branded... It's a misplaced priority because the health sector should be given priority," he said.

Sunway University political scientist Wong Chin Huat said with Mr Muhyiddin putting the election before the pandemic, it may just make him an easier target for Umno and PH when one is called.

"Despite his controversial rise to power, Muhyiddin has a great opportunity to emerge statesmanlike. (But) out of insecurity and arrogance, he now gives the opposition a strong case to vote down his budget," he told The Straits Times, noting the moment of truth will come when the budget is put to a vote on Nov 23.

By convention, the failure to pass the budget to fund the government is akin to a no-confidence motion that would lead to the collapse of the administration.

While Umno welcomed Jasa's revival, party vice-president Khaled Nordin said the huge allocation required further explanation.

"If there is reasonable justification, then it is okay for the large allocation. Maybe a weak government needs a bigger loudspeaker," he was quoted on Saturday by local news site Free Malaysia Today.

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