It's election time, here comes Santa Claus

Malaysia's ruling and opposition parties are trying to outdo one another with freebies

There was a time when Malaysia, it appeared, could not put a foot wrong.

It claimed rights as the fastest-growing economy in the Muslim world, and had the world's tallest buildings and an efficient highway connecting its southern tip to its far north that radically changed the movement of goods and people.

The can-do spirit was captured in the slogan Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can), even as the nation's leaders ignored taunts about carrying an "edifice complex".

Underpinning the swagger was a government led by a coalition that had kept power since taking the nation to independence from British rule.

Now, as the oil and gas, palm oil, rubber and timber-rich nation prepares to elect its next government, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) could - for the first time - lose federal power to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

The reasons are diverse and well known. Many Malaysian voters are incensed by a spate of corruption scandals linked to BN. They want the government of the day to listen more to their grouses and give them more freedom to assemble and speak out.

It doesn't help BN either that some 40 per cent of the 13.3 million eligible voters are below 35 years old. The young, after all, are forever restless and impatient with the way things are.

Underneath these yearnings for accountability and democracy are bread-and-butter issues such as fast-rising prices of homes, higher food and transport costs, along with the hope of securing better- paying jobs that come with high- quality foreign investments.

The intense fight for votes has led both the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak and the opposition PR to promise more and more populist measures.

You could call it Santa Claus politics.

"These goodies can swing votes especially when the previous margin of victory was small. And for the important states like Sabah and Sarawak, these gifts mean a lot for the rural population," said Mr Azman Ujang, former editor-in-chief of national news agency Bernama.

Freebies and promises

Datuk Seri Najib has dished out many freebies in the four years since he became premier. The opposition alliance led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has promised more if it comes to power.

Mr Najib's gifts - worth billions of ringgit - last year included RM200 each to hundreds of thousands of young people to buy smartphones and RM250 in student book vouchers. This year he issued RM500 in a second batch of aid money for all households, and just last week, pay hikes for 230,000 policemen and soldiers. And he has indicated there is more to come if BN retains power.

The opposition, in turn, is promising to provide free university education, write off RM25 billion in university study loans and lower water and electricity bills.

To help the poor, Mr Najib got government agencies and the private sector to start Klinik 1Malaysia health care, Menu Rakyat 1Malaysia restaurants, Pr1ma housing programme and Kedai Rakyat 1Malaysia sundry shops, among other projects.

The opposition PR alliance, in its election manifesto launched last month, has promised to lower transport costs by bringing down car and petrol prices, and removing highway tolls.

As political analyst Khoo Kay Peng wrote recently on his blog, PR's manifesto looks similar to what PM Najib has been doing, in that "money is the solution to all woes".

"As a result, both coalitions may end up trying to prove who is a better Santa Claus," he said.

Mr Salahuddin Ayub, vice-president of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), said there was nothing wrong with these promises. "We are not promising the sky and the moon. I strongly believe that it is good if Pakatan and BN were to compete positively like this," he said.

But here is one worry the politicians are downplaying.

With all the goodies disbursed or promised, will the next government shift more public money towards productive activities such as upgrading ports and boosting worker education, or will it be forced to give yet more sugar and spice to voters fattened by everything nice?

Reality check

The harsh reality is that the more you give, the more people want.

To begin with, the handouts will not necessarily bring in the votes.

Just remember the famous saying by PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat: "If they give you money, take it; sugar, stir it; a sarong, wear it. But when you vote, select the moon (the PAS party symbol)".

His point is simple: The smiling faces who accept political gifts will not necessarily vote for you.

A second point is that the freebies have to be paid for by somebody down the line.

PR has said that funding its handouts would come from savings made by eliminating corruption and crony middlemen. But it isn't quite clear that these would be nearly enough to fund the nearly RM46 billion promised in its manifesto.

Malaysia is already into its 16th year of budget deficit since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Public funds come from taxes and other piggy banks, such as national oil firm Petronas.

So instead of using the tax revenues to pay for say, new village roads, the funds might be diverted to keep down petrol prices in Malaysia, or to compensate highway companies for removing their toll booths.

In other words, they will be paid for by the same voters who thought they got them for free.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 17, 2013

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