Sunday, October 25, 2009

A pocketful of dreams, with holes!

Read the newspaper today. So the 2010 Budget is out. I gather it has a three pronged goals of developing a high income economy, achieving a holistic and sustainable development and ensuring the well-being of the people. Then it sets out the priority areas on which it would spend to achieve the desired outcome. So as a budget, it is very much in character of one, about good intentions, and the money to be spent in support. Another universal characteristic of a budget seems to be in place: the goodies must be spread around, or to be seen as such, for the winning of hearts and minds.

 So I would say, stripped to its barest elements and fundamentals, it is very much the usual budget. Only time will tell if good intentions and money allocated actually translate into the well-being of the people. Time will bear witness if a budget degenerates into a plundering, pilfering, squandering or cheating exercise.

Pray excuse my lack of exuberance. It is not altogether unfounded, for we have been down the road before. Experience of the past , and for countless times, dictate caution, vigilance and reserved judgment for the moment.

 Take for instance the whole NEP saga. The Malays, bumiputras, in whose name it was promulgated, gained little in substance, but attracted much ill-will and stigma. The non-Malays, wrongly perceiving that all or most Malays waxed riches with little effort, felt denied. Both Malays and non-Malays see themselves as victims of injustice, while seeing the opposite camp as the perpetrators. In truth a small group of Malays and non-Malays gained hugely by playing heroes of their people and whipping the blame game. The NEP as implemented, or rather abused, did not usher in a ‘holistic and sustainable’ development but succeeded well in dividing the nation.

The particular context of the 2010 Budget makes it very crucial and important. Firstly it is the maiden budget of Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak as the Prime Minister. Hence the budget is an important indicator of the thinking of the man at the helm, which will set the direction for the years ahead. Secondly, it is a budget in times of heightened political wariness or cynicism in terms of ethnic relations. Thirdly, it is a time of serious economic downturn. The GDP growth for 2008 was 4.6%, while the projection for 2009 is -3%. It seems the private sector, on which the PM is relying upon heavily to pull off his budget, is also shrinking. The private sector used to contribute about 30% to the GDP in the 1997-98 prior to the Asian financial crises, but below 10% currently. To sum it all, this is a budget that cannot afford to miss, for this will spell disaster for the nation!

The best of plans, the noblest of intentions, would come to naught if hijacked, side tracked and subjected to greed and opportunism. I won’t make issue of krrrrruption or krrrrronism for populist propaganda. However, I would caution our leaders, planners, administrators to mind those ‘holes in your pockets!’ It upsets and saddened me to read of civil servants abusing claims, suppliers and contractors overcharging and over quoting, civil servants and businessmen colluding in false claims, billions disappearing in the black hole of ghost accounts, kickbacks and fake consultancies, and the whole complex of human ingenuity for self aggrandizement.

 All these eat into the budget, undermining its ‘value for money’ aimed at by the Prime Minister in his speech. It seems to me that in the past the bigger the project, the bigger are the holes in the nation’s pockets.

Initially I intended to discuss the substantive aspects of the budget. On the question of setting priorities, niches and remodeling the economy. The advisability of cutting  public spending by cutting subsidies. On boosting the financial sector, banks, the stock exchange and Islamic finance. The development of the regional corridors and the beefing of IT industry. The promotion of tourism and green companies. The support for medium size businesses and the granting of AP’s for stimulating the automobile industry. The boosting of Iskandar Development Region, the residents of which shall be paying less income tax than the rest of the country.

Easy visas for talented expatriates, and for the spouses of Malaysian women who may not be as talented. On attacking food and fuel subsidies , which may not be a good idea. On the suitability of the new sources of revenues. On the subject of spreading the goodies for students on broadband facilities, for the common man in the street, in the name of social justice.

And then I stopped in my track and changed my mind about discussing the budget substantively. It is not the main thrusts of the speech that did it, but the closing lines at the very end! The Prime Minister said: ‘Our recent success in Bagan Pinang has sparked our zeal to embark on this journey of transformation to lift our beloved nation to greater heights’. I wonder had BN lost the by-election of Bagan Pinang, would the budget be a very different one ? The Prime Minister then continues: 'Indeed, this budget touches the heart and soul of all Malaysians. Indeed, this is an earnest and sincere contribution from the government to the people’ Well, why the bipolarity of the ‘government’ and the ‘people’? Why is a budget a ‘contribution from the government to the people’? I have always thought of it as a duty and service of the government of the day in managing public fund.

 According to the theories of the sub-conscious, it is the small slips that are most revealing of the real thinking. Maybe I am reading too much into this. I shall attribute these statements to a zealous speech writer with an overworked mind. Anyway the closing lines were received with thunderous applause from the government supporters in the Dewan Rakyat. The effects desired by the speech writer had been achieved!


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