The Asian Voice

The losers in populist rivalry: Sin Chew Daily columnist

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak addresses the members of Parliament, during the 2018 Budget presentation at the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct 27, 2017.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak addresses the members of Parliament, during the 2018 Budget presentation at the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct 27, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR (SIN CHEW DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - From the approval to construct ten new Chinese primary schools and relocate six others, to the Malaysian Indian Blueprint mentioned in Budget 2018, it is obvious that Umno is stepping up its effort to fight for more non-Malay votes against the backdrop of a shaky Malay vote bank.

When the GE13 results were released, Prime Minister Najib tun Razak concluded that it was the "Chinese tsunami" that caused the number of Barisan Nasional (BN) seats to contract. After that, Umno started to shift its focus to reaffirming its hold of Malay seats as exemplified by the bumiputra economic empowerment agenda in a bid to reciprocate the goodwill of rural Malay voters.

Nevertheless, following the thinning of Malay support as a consequence of the RM2.6 billion (836 million) political donation and 1MDB scandals, Umno began to engage Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) while vowing not to give up Malay votes.

Najib's position in Umno has been boosted after Mahathir and Muhyiddin left the party, as there are fewer dissident voices now, thus allowing Najib to revert to the middle path to openly endorse multi-stream education and the construction of new SJKCs (Chinese national-type schools).

However, given Najib's cautious style in doing things, he still needs to fight for the support of other ethnic communities to ensure BN's continued success besides consolidating his grip of fundamental support base and winning the hearts of the Chinese, Indians and indigenous peoples.

This explains why he has come up with the most "inclusive mother of all budgets" for 2018.

Everyone is well taken care of under Budget 2018: infants, primary school students, high schools students, tertiary students, young workers, parents and senior citizens. Newborns will be provided with an initial saving fund of RM200 in unit trust; an education savings fund for primary and secondary school students, and book vouchers for pre-U and tertiary students.

Meanwhile, maternity leave for female employees will be extended to 90 days, one-year tax exemption for them to rejoin the job market and a 2 per cent income tax cut for the fathers. Assistance for senior citizens will also be increased.

No one has been left out in Budget 2018. For example, an unprecedented amount of RM6.5 billion will be set aside to boost the agricultural sector, RM200 monthly allowances for three months in the run-up to harvesting. Even taxi drivers will get RM5,000 grants to buy new vehicles for conversion to e-hailing services.

Sure enough Umno will never forget its biggest vote bank: rural Malay votes. More than RM3.5 billion will be allocated for five bumiputra-related transformation programs.

Thanks to such comprehensive assistance, the government's subsidies and allowances will go up by almost 15 per cent to RM26.5 billion or about 9.5 per cent of all allocations.

That said, some of the so-called "candies" have been made possible courtesy of the private sector. For instance, the cost of the proposed 90-day maternity leave will be borne by the private sector. Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan has estimated an increased cost of almost RM20 billion, including RM10 billion on maternity leave and RM10 billion to pay relief workers.

Meanwhile, the government must compensate highway concessionaires for abolishing tolls at four toll gates, and this could be done either in cash or extension of their concessions. If the concessions were to be extended, it would be unfair to those not using the highways, as they and their children will have to pay tolls for significantly longer durations.

The ultimate purpose of this "inclusivity" is of course winning the next general election. As such, we have seen no proposals on the solutions to deliver the country out of the middle income trap.

BN is not the only party trying to please the voters with populist measures. Pakatan Harapan (PH) is doing the same thing too.

The alternative budget proposed by PH pledges to abolish GST and highway tolls, provide free education for all and increase the minimum monthly wage to RM1,500, among a host of other goodies, if the opposition pact were to win the next election.

PH must strive to slash the operating expenditure by RM40 billion before it can make up for the tax shortfall from abolished GST, while the RM1,500 minimum wage will sink many SMEs into financial difficulties.

We can foresee that Selangor MB Azmin Ali will be equally generous when tabling next year's state budget soon, especially on bonuses for civil servants.

Parties on both sides of the great political divide strive to outdo one another in populism. In the end, the rakyat will be forced to foot the bill of the extravagant candies because the politicians will not have to come up with a single cent themselves to be generous.

In the worst case scenario, the foundation of this nation will be compromised.

Sin Chew Daily is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.