April 13, 2015
IT is good to read “Staying the course” (The Star, May 4) by our optimistic and very driven CEO of Pemandu, Minister Datuk Idris Jala, who welcomes comments and criticism in the right spirit.
He acknowledges that it’s only those who care for our country’s future progress who would take the trouble to compliment the Government and also complain about the Government’s weak policies and poor implementation.
This positive outlook is in stark contrast to the negative views of some authorities who are quick to condemn and sometimes ruthlessly suppress dissent, even when peacefully expressed.
It’s better to openly criticise governments, as is the public’s right, than to stealthily bash the authorities from the shadows. Most of us gladly welcome the Government’s appreciation of our frank expression and well-meaning and caring concerns and criticism.
Idris thus provides a conducive democratic environment for honest debate and discussion on the National Transformation Programme (NTP). This enlightened process is essential for progress.
He has rightly pointed out several achievements in the Economic Transformation Plan (ETP) which I would like to comment on.
1) As Idris rightly pointed out, economic growth at 6% is truly commendable, especially given the current global economic uncertainties. But we have to also ask who are the major beneficiaries of this good growth, the rich or the poor?
Although all Malaysians gain, we have to increasingly focus more on raising the incomes of the lowest 40% of the low income groups, and not on the basis of bumi and non-bumi Malaysians. Per capita income of US$15,000 (RM53,589) may be in sight by 2020, but inflation can erode the real income.
2) It may not be correct to assume that our inflation is low! Most Malaysians are painfully aware that prices are steadily rising. They experience price rise in most of the food and other essentials that they consume. They feel the pressure of high and rising inflation and not “low inflation”. We need to check the price levels more with the rakyatand not with the traders and shopkeepers.
3) Employment could be on the rise, but it begs the question of what kind of employment. Are they low income jobs for which we have to compete with immigrant workers who depress our wages? Do these jobs give us the dignity of skilled labour? Our education system is churning out large numbers of misfits for the labour market, who cannot get suitable jobs with their qualifications because of low standards.
But I would agree that it is better to have even a menial job rather than none at all. Our educational standards must be raised faster for graduates to earn higher incomes and for higher productivity.
4) Private investment indeed continues to outpace public or Government investment. But that is as it should be, as envisaged by the ETP. The private sector must take the lead in development, as the Government is unable to and should not want to easily raise government spending when it cannot afford to do so. We should not forget that we have to keep the budget deficit under control and not let it deteriorate further.
Although the Government has done well to reduce the fiscal deficit to 3.5% of the GDP last year, we have to ensure that we stay on course. This could be a serious challenge given the need to restrain expenditure.
5) It is commendable that our budget revenues have been growing with economic growth. Despite the decline in oil and gas revenues, our budget revenue has been increasing due to the better tax collection techniques.
The GST will supplement these revenues but we have to assure the public, and especially the low income groups, that the higher revenues will finance genuine economic development that will benefit the rakyat and not be wasted and leaked away. That is partly why we see all these protests and anger against the GST.
6) Private consumption or what the people spend on food and other daily needs, now constitutes about 66% of the Gross National Income (GNI). But actually we need to also save more for investment. However, that is difficult to do with low wages and rising inflation. Hence, real wages need to be raised to encourage more savings to finance investments for better long-term benefits and economic sustainability.
7) Wage increases without matching productivity growth can be further inflationary and cause more price increases. This is not good for sustained economic growth and stability.
Hence, we have to maintain moderate and balanced policies and improve our implementation capacity. But, as Idris points out with understandable pride, Malaysia’s ranking in the World Competitiveness Yearbook rose from 15th to 12th last year. So we hope that we continue to progress to ensure we stay on course.
It’s good to emphasise our strengths but our weaknesses must be highlighted and addressed more energetically too.
Thus, the GTP and ETP Annual Reports have to be more balanced in their presentation and analysis to gain greater public support, higher credibility and especially public confidence.
For instance, it would be most useful if the Pemandu report cards to the nation can also comment on our national threats and weaknesses. The public will appreciate more explanations and open discussion on the weaknesses that our country faces.
High public and household debt, weak ringgit, undercurrents of corruption, wastage of public funds, inadequate transparency in Government tendering and accountability, income inequality and poverty are major problems that must be debated and solved with greater priority.
Socio-economic progress is based on domestic and foreign confidence in the quality of governance. Hence, the recent rise in racial and religious bigotry and the violation of human rights will discourage investment and cause further brain drain and capital outflows.
All these negative factors, if not adequately and speedily addressed, could lead to a decline in public confidence and negate the many achievements of the country and our Government. This will be most unfortunate.
Idris, we hope your optimistic outlook for the economy and the impending 11th Malaysia Plan will be justified by further progress.
Our determined drive to achieve the goals of Vision 2020 will have to be accelerated. This will happen only if we all not only stay the course but also stick to it. We need to address both the positive and negative aspects of the GTP and ETP with greater balance.
Then, Idris, we Malaysians will all move forward together with greater unity of purpose and national confidence to realise our Vision 2020.
TAN SRI RAMON NAVARATNAM
ASLI Centre of Public Policy Studies
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