A Budget parable

Cartoon courtesy of cartoonkafe.com and Merdeka Review

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We keep planting more and more thorn trees and then give handy-plasters and sweets to the people in the annual Budget announcements, writes Jeyakumar Devaraj.

Cartoon courtesy of cartoonkafe.com and Merdeka Review
Cartoon courtesy of cartoonkafe.com and Merdeka Review

Once upon a time there was, in a small tropical nation, a ruler named Bijan. He wasn’t particularly bright as a ruler, but he had a lot of distinguished advisors from the IMF and the World Bank to give him advice on how to develop his country.

In Bijan’s country there were many nice fruit trees lining the paths leading to the fields, where the people worked, and to the rivers, where they caught fish and bathed.

The wise men from the West advised Bijan to cut down all these fruit trees and plant various varieties of cacti and trees bearing thorns on their branches. These wise advisors told Bijan that these cacti, creepers and thorn trees would be good for the country in the long term.

So despite the protests of his people, Bijan cut down many of the fruit trees and replaced them with cacti and trees with thorns as advised by the wise men from overseas.

Over time the branches of these thorn trees grew into the paths that the people used for their daily activity and caused scratches and cuts to the passers-by. The people complained bitterly, but Bijan, following the advice of the wise men from the West, refused to trim these branches.

Finally, on Budget day, the day Bijan announced to the nation how he planned to use the taxes that the government collected from the people, Bijan outlined many plans to deal with the wounds caused by the thorn trees and cacti – the government would give lotions such as flavine free of charge and sell plasters at reduced prices. He would give a tax relief for all panadol purchased and give a grant of RM1000 if anyone died as a result of a wound from the thorns.

Some of the people who had thought a little more deeply pointed out that the main problem: the thorny branches encroaching onto the paths that people used daily. Surely, the trimming of these branches should be an important component of any sincere attempt to deal with the wounds being sustained by the people. Sadly, however, there was no mention of any trimming of thorn branches in Bijan’s Budget speech, as all his advisors from the West advised strongly against any such measures.

Over the past 25 years, Malaysia has encouraged the private sector to take over the provision of basic services – water, health care, housing, tertiary education, waste disposal – because the wise men from the World Bank and IMF have told us that the private sector is a better and more efficient provider of all goods and services that the public requires. As a result the cost of living in Malaysia has spiraled upwards and household debt now stands at 225 per cent of annual household income!

Thousands of lower-level staff in government departments have been terminated and then re-employed as workers for private contractors, providing services to the government – housekeeping, security, gardening, etc. This has resulted in job insecurity, wage stagnation, loss of amenities such as workers’ quarters, housing loans, old age pension and medical benefits.

Aren’t these policies like the “thorn trees” mentioned in the parable above? There is hardly anything in the 2015 budget that reverses or even trims the neo-liberal policy framework that Malaysia has adopted.

In the health care sector for example, measures like building several more 1Malaysia Clinics are mentioned. But the major problem is the shortage of experienced specialists in government hospitals. More than 75 per cent of the experienced specialists have left for the much more lucrative private hospitals.
It would be easy to “trim” this particular thorn tree – just put a moratorium on the further expansion of private hospital beds. No new private hospitals and no expansion of the wards of existing private hospitals. That would curb the brain drain and give the government hospitals a chance to upgrade the quality of services provided. But this sort of intervention is not there in the budget.

And the government intends to plant two more “thorn trees” in 2015 – the GST and the TPPA!

We keep planting more and more thorn trees and then give handy-plasters and sweets to the people in the annual Budget announcements. And then so many journalists, opinion shapers and political leaders fall head-over-heels to sing praises to what they claim is a “peoples’ budget”. And they keep getting away with this falsehood year after year.

How long are we going to remain so naive and gullible?

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