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By Chandra Muzaffar

Like many other citizens, I hope the Malaysian parliament will adopt the 2021 Budget with a comfortable margin. Among the reasons why it should, are the following. One, the 2021 Budget is directly linked to one of the most severe crisis that the nation has had face in its entire history. By adopting the Budget our Members of Parliament would be responding to the challenge of the hour. Two, the Budget contains general and specific proposals that deal with the health crisis and the economic crisis that the former has spawned. Support from the people’s representatives for these measures is vital to ensure their smooth implementation. Three, since the budget’s primary preoccupation is with vulnerable groups, they would be gravely disappointed if the budget fails to garner Parliamentary endorsement. It would appear that the institution that represents them is not as concerned as it should be with their well-being. Four, the budget goes beyond the immediate crises and seeks to address challenges that are critical for the nation’s future such as infrastructure development, digitalization, industrialisation and food production. It is only through an appreciation of these challenges that parliament and the people would be able to play a decisive role in moulding Malaysia’s future. Five, in a period of great uncertainty, a budget provides the citizenry with a sense of direction. It therefore deserves the support of all and sundry.

Of course, the budget has its limitations which is why the government should remain open to ideas and proposals from not only members of parliament whatever their political affiliation but also citizens from all walks of life. In the last few weeks many useful suggestions have emerged such as ways of reducing public expenditure by jettisoning certain construction projects, eliminating allocations that are not essential and even trimming down on roles and positions. One expenditure item which has raised a lot of eyebrows is the 85 million ringgit alloted to JASA, a Special Affairs Department under the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia. It is perceived as a mechanism for government propaganda. Perhaps at a time like this, Jasa’s allocation can be better utilised for more urgent purposes connected with public health.

Some members of Parliament have also asked how the government is going to finance the biggest budget in our history with an outlay of RM 322.5 billion. While there is some explanation in the budget itself, there is certainly a need for further clarification, taking into account various possible scenarios that will impact upon public revenue in the coming year. People are most conscious of the fact that our economy is in the doldrums.

Two other concerns which have gained a great deal of public attention are linked to the KWSP (the Employees Provident Fund) on the one hand and a moratorium on loans, on the other. Both it must be stressed do not come within the ambit of the budget. It is therefore disingenuous of some MPs to argue that they will only support the budget if their position on the two issues is accommodated. Nonetheless, because KWSP and the extension on the moratorium have emerged as the cynosure of budget discourse, the government has chosen to respond. It is significant that while taking heed of the public’s pleas, government leaders have been resolute about maintaining professional norms.

Unfortunately, neither the government nor parliament has given adequate attention to the pathetic situation of two categories of people that has surfaced in the course of the health crisis. Inmates in many of our prisons have become victims of Covid -19 partly because of the parlous conditions in which they are detained. This requires urgent attention just as the housing and living conditions of many foreign workers have increased their susceptibility to the virus. In both instances we are reminded why humane treatment of all our fellow beings is a fundamental societal principle.

Finally, a section of civil society and various legislators have also proposed that all legislators at parliament and state levels, including of course Ministers and Deputy Ministers take a “pay cut”, of 20% of their salaries and allowances for a period of time, say a year or so. Though the total quantum would be modest, it would have a huge psychological impact upon our people as proof of the willingness of our elected leaders to sacrifice a portion of their income for the larger good of society. It will be recalled that in the eighties and nineties, in the midst of an economic crisis such a move was made by our Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

If our political leaders act in this manner, it is quite conceivable that the top brass of our civil and public services, the Judiciary and other public institutions will follow suit. Our Rulers and royal households would also want to set the right example. The upper echelons of our GLCs and GLICs will be persuaded to do their bit. Private sector elites with their huge earnings will also have to respond to the challenge.

Even if all these proposals are incorporated into the Budget, there are some who argue that the Budget has to be rejected because the government of the day has no legal standing. Let it be emphasised that the appointment of Tan Sri Muhyuddin Yassin as Prime Minister on the 1st of March 2020 by His Majesty the Yang Di Pertuan Agong was in accordance with provisions of the Malaysian Constitution. When the then Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad resigned, the King exercised his constitutional right to choose a member of parliament who he had ascertained commanded the support of the majority of MPs and was therefore qualified to be Prime Minister.

This argument about the legality of Muhyuddin’s position is a camouflage for those who are hell-bent on usurping the Prime Ministership. Personal ambition, propelled by domestic and foreign agendas, is what drives these individuals. Whatever their rhetoric, they have no commitment to the well-being of the people or the nation’s interest.

Such crass selfishness at a time like this will be the ruin of our nation.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar has been writing about Malaysian politics and society since the early seventies.

Kuala Lumpur.

23rd November 2020.

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