Are we being bribed?

Kee Thuan Chye

I don’t know about you but I got practically nothing from the 2013 Budget. I don’t qualify for the BR1M payout of RM500 for households with a monthly income of not more than RM3,000. I also don’t qualify for the 50% discount on passports for senior citizens.

But that’s all right. I don’t want anything from the Budget. It comes from the people’s money and should be spent wisely on developing the country. I should not expect to get something directly from it.

The way it looks, though, Prime Minister Najib Razak doesn’t seem to think the same way. His 2013 Budget is a lot about giving money away to people. It seems this is to make them happy, and perhaps this feeling of happiness could translate into votes for his Barisan Nasional (BN) government at the upcoming general election.

What worries me is that Najib is spending money like there is no tomorrow. That seems the right way to put it because his Budget does not address the future. Maybe except for education, especially in boosting vocational training and encouraging small entrepreneurs.

There’s hardly anything about enhancing the country’s economic growth, spending prudently or reducing the national debt.

In fact, of the projected amount of RM252 billion to be spent, a whopping RM202 billion will be used for operating expenditure. Only one-fifth left is for development expenditure.

Najib is gung-ho about the global economy despite the uncertainties predicted by financial analysts. He said, “In 2013, based on the prospects of an improved global economy, the Malaysian economy is forecast to expand strongly between 4.5% and 5%.”

Is that predicated on a DR1M?

Meanwhile, the reality, according to online news website Free Malaysia Today, is that this year the national debt has risen 10.1% to a new high of RM502.4 billion or 53.7% of the GDP. That is only 1.3% short of the 55% debt ceiling the country is allowed to reach.

And according to The Malaysian Insider, this debt figure “does not include hidden liability of RM117 billion (12 percent of GDP) in the form of guarantees issued against commercial loans to government agencies and GLCs (government-linked corporations)”.

Is our fiscal future already in the pawnshop?

In the social media, people are calling Najib “an illusionist” for throwing so much money around when Malaysians are wondering where it is coming from. They’re calling this Budget “the biggest bribe Budget of all time”.

The main targets appear to be the low-income groups, youths and civil servants (who will be getting one-and-a-half month’s bonus).

BR1M is back. It has even been extended to unmarried individuals aged above 21 who are earning not more than RM2,000 a month. These people will get RM250.

I don’t understand the rationale for this. In fact, I think it’s rather silly. Perhaps the minimum age is too low. A newly graduated employee who earns, say, between RM1,500 and RM2,000, which is about what a lot of fresh graduates get these days, would be entitled to the BR1M RM250 even if he or she doesn’t need it.

And what if this person has lost both parents and is therefore a household of one? Does he or she claim the RM250 plus the BR1M RM500, which in principle he or she should also be entitled to?

Even more mind-boggling is the RM200 rebate for those aged between 21 and 30 earning not more than RM3,000 to buy smartphones. Why smartphones? It’s a non-essential item. Besides, many may already own one.

Consider this: A 20-something who earns RM2,900 and has no dependents, therefore no commitments, would be flushed with cash and already own a smartphone. Why give him or her that aid?

As someone pointed out on Facebook, it may transpire that some of them will make a deal with the smartphone dealers and get the cash instead. “Just give me RM150, you keep the other RM50” or something like that.

We saw signs of such a tendency when the Government gave tertiary students book vouchers earlier this year only to see them put up for sale on the Internet. Not having learned from that experience, it is still giving out more book vouchers, worth RM250, through the new Budget.

Indeed, the range of goodies dished out to youths seems to show desperation on the part of BN to secure their goodwill since many of them will be voting at GE13. The Budget even offers a 20% discount to borrowers who pay back in full their National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) loans by the end of September next year.

This was, to be sure, taking a leaf from the Opposition’s Buku Jingga. It just falls short of Pakatan Rakyat’s proposal to do away with the loans totally and therefore giving free education to everyone. Nonetheless, the Government was not bashful about appropriating the basic theme.

That’s not surprising. This is not the first time the Government has taken ideas from Pakatan and used them. Besides, with the general election coming up, any populist idea has to appear a great idea.

Skeptics, however, are not persuaded. Neither are those who are capable of seeing beyond the temporary gratification of the handouts they are given.

As one Netizen wrote on Facebook: “Ini semua secara ‘pinjaman’ saja (This is all just a ‘loan’). Payback time will come after GE13. The people will have to pay back with interest if BN wins. Wait and see.”

Indeed, when the Government has to give money out like this, something must have been wrong with its administration of the country. Has it not done the right things to improve the economy of a country blessed with a wealth of natural resources in order to ensure that its people enjoy a high per capita income arising out of a huge GDP?

Why are we at this point in our development still trying to become a high-income nation? Why is our average national wage still so low? According to CIMB, in 2010 it stood at only RM1,804.43.

I was recently reminded by a friend about ‘Bersih, Cekap dan Amanah’ (Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy), the tagline of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s administration. What happened to its promise? Did it turn out to be the opposite instead? And thereby led to leakage and wastage of public money and corruption in high places that sucked away our resources and rendered us poorer than we should be?

Ironically, then, the 2013 Budget shows us even more clearly the failure of the BN government over the decades in taking the country’s economy to a higher level. Compared to Singapore, which has no natural resources, Malaysia is a laggard.

And yet, to make doubly sure that Malaysians got the message that his goodies were meant to secure their votes, Najib stressed: “With… support from the rakyat, God-willing, we will see six more budgets tabled by the BN government before Malaysia transforms into a nation with high-income status” (meaning in 2020).

He then proceeded to bash the Opposition.

It prompted someone to post in Facebook: “This is the first time in the history of Malaysia that a PM shamelessly tells us that we need to vote for him after he gives out the goodies. Tak malu ke? (Not embarrassed?) Does he think the Government coffers belong solely to BN?”

Yes, lest we forget, the money is not BN’s. It is the public’s money. Yours and mine.

Blogger Sakmongkol AK47 puts it aptly, “The Budget is about the PM asking for our money and telling us how he wants to use the money he is asking from us.  It is not a gift from him, not ehsan or hadiah.”

This connotes that we need not be grateful for getting the handouts because it’s our own money. Nonetheless, we still need to ask: Is the PM doing the right thing with our money? Is he bribing us? And if he is, will we allow ourselves to be bribed?

These are questions we also need to answer.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book ‘No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians’. The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer.