October 4, 2022

An opportunity to right the wrong

4 min read

TUN DR Mahathir Mohamad was right when he said before the tabling of Budget 2020 that it can’t meet all demands and it can’t please everyone.

The one presented by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng last Friday was supposed to be “special”.

After all it was for 2020, the year we targeted to achieve a developed nation status. We missed our mark, quite understandably. At least people were looking at it as the second Budget presented by Pakatan Harapan (PH) after the first tough year. But despite the catcalls, the banging of tables and clapping in the auspicious hall of the Parliament, a budget presented is still a budget. This year the government was supposed to present a Budget that can do more to tighten loose ends however unpopular some of the measures will be. General election is still at least three years away.

Let’s not go into details. So much has been said so far about “apa rakyat mahu” (what the people want). And as much being said about how the Budget fared this time. It wasn’t really up to mark for many yet it wasn’t disappointing either.

But let us look at a bigger picture, perhaps beyond the Budget presented last week. And even beyond the demand for more subsidies and less taxes.

There is a need for economic stimulus to drive the economy and the right fiscal policies to be in place. And more importantly to ensure the government is providing the right signals and cues for the private sector to forge ahead.

We have been lacking that since the PH government took over. In short, there is lack of direction.

Perhaps too much time has been spent on worrying about the sins of the old government and the burgeoning debts. And of course the worsening global economic trends. Trade wars single-handedly initiated by President Donald Trump is not helping. Realistically we have to prepare for the worst.

The whole issue of poverty for instance should be addressed in totality. After all studies have shown that inequality within the race (even among the Malays) is more significant than between races.

But we tend to ignore that. Perhaps we are being clouded by our penchant for appeasing and playing to the gallery, we lost track of the real national narrative.

Tan Sri Dr Kamal Salih of Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) came out on my Sinar TV Bicara Minda programme last Wednesday. He is undoubtedly one of the finest minds in economy. He was frank even brutal in his assessment. He can be faulted for suggesting that the goods and services tax (GST) is a better option that the sales and services tax (SST). The GST was a much hated tax regime that was largely responsible for the ouster of the Barisan Nasional government in the last election.

He also believed that for Malaysia to move on to the next level, we must relook at our technology-based industrialisation programmes. It is basically about re-industrialisation. We need technological entrepreneurs and innovators to spearhead new initiatives. They must be helped and given incentives. We must be pro-active and recognise new talents and skills.

He suggested that we must look at the entire education system. Too much attention on academic excellence alone is not the solution to nurture creative and innovative individuals.

When asked about why we are grappling to achieve an advanced country status, he answered that we are depending too much on our natural resources like oil and gas, oil palm and timber. Unlike the Koreans and Japanese who have little natural resources, we are not propelled to innovate, to improve technology and to increase productivity. Year after year we are expecting to get our income from Petronas to finance our development. He raised the issue about skilled workers among us and with about a million abroad, a brain drain that is totally unacceptable. There are more than five million graduates over the years, many are working below their capacity level.

However we have the opportunity to right the wrong.

The Internet is changing the way we do business. It is a tool for us to take advantage of. Industry 4.0 should be a critical aspect of our current and future economy.

But then again, we need the right eco-system for that.

The tabling of the Budget will lose its lustre in months to come. The rakyat will go back to the real world facing bread and butter issues. A yearly budget should be able to address real issues not just dangling carrots and promising sweeteners. We have enough of that over the years.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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