Malaysian populist windfall fuels debt fears 

(Channel News Asia) – It has never been more lucrative to be a voter in Malaysia, where political rivals are showering the public with cash in a desperate electoral battle, stoking concerns over rising national debt.

With the May 5 elections expected to be Malaysia’s closest ever, the long-ruling coalition has given billions of dollars in new cash, pay rises and other handouts to civil servants, the poor, elderly, farmers and students.

The opposition, which holds four of 13 states, has likewise made a range of state-level payouts, and promises still more perks if it wins federal power for the first time in Malaysia’s 56 years of independence.

The bidding war began shortly after the opposition stung the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition in 2008 elections, but has spiralled of late.

“It’s been a windfall for Malaysians these past five years,” said Francis Loh, president of Malaysian democratic rights group Aliran.

The bonanza has seemed farcical at times.

Barisan recently denounced opposition campaign pledges as a blueprint for insolvency.

But Prime Minister Najib Razak promptly upped the ante with billions in new promises of his own — sparking opposition outrage that he copied their ideas.

The unprecedented giveaways attest to the high stakes of an election in which a ruling elite is desperate to retain power and its rich perks, while the opposition fights to make the most of its best shot yet at governing.

But warnings are emerging that Malaysia is at best endangering a goal to become a “developed nation” by 2020 and at worst courting disaster.

“Today’s politicians are bent on planting the seeds of an economic crisis for our children to inherit,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who runs the IDEAS think-tank.

If Malaysia meets financial catastrophe in the future, “economic historians may well trace back the root cause to this general election,” he added.

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