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52-51 vote shock exposes BN’s vulnerability to rising cost of living

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What last night’s drama in Parliament shows is that the unexpected, even the unimaginable, can occur when we least expect it, observes Anil Netto.

The BN-led government’s razor-thin 52-51 winning margin in a vote called by the opposition to protest at the rising cost of petrol of goods has sent a ripple of excitement down the nation.

The vote strikes at the core of the unhappiness felt on the ground by many in recent years: the soaring cost of living.

The vote was called by a PKR MP during the committee stage debate for the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry’s portion of Budget 2018.

The BN was clearly taken off guard and MPs had to scramble in after the bell was rung to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. With the help of latecomers and the deputy speaker who voted for the ruling coalition, the BN scraped through under highly controversial circumstances.

What was interesting is that half a dozen Pas MPs reportedly sided with the opposition MPs against the bill while two other Pas MPs abstained. That is more than half of the party’s 14 MPs.

This suggests that the BN cannot take for granted the support of Pas MPs in the house, notwithstanding Umno’s ‘friendly’ relations with the Pas top leadership.

Meanwhile, the absent Pakatan MPs must be kicking themselves for missing a gilt-edged opportunity to upset the BN apple-cart.

The vote in Parliament tonight comes on the heels of the announcement that Malaysia recorded a strong 6.2% GDP growth in the third quarter of 2017, compared to 4.3% for the same quarter last year. This was supposedly underpinned by strong private consumption growth of 7.2%.

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Unfortunately, the feel-good factor that one would expect from 6.2% growth has not filtered down to many of the rakyat.

It is difficult to see how private consumption has been boosted when consumer confidence is at a low ebb. Consumer confidence fell to 77.1 in the third quarter from 80.7 in the second quarter, according to the Malaysian Institute for Economic Research. (A value above 100 indicates an expected improvement in conditions while a value below 100 reveals a lack of confidence.)

High household debt due to hefty housing and car loans, the pain from GST, and the weaker ringgit, which has resulted in imported food and other imported items becoming more expensive, have all added to the gloom on the ground.

Neoliberal economic policies such as the removal of subsidies, fuel price hikes and budget constraints on essential social services such as education and healthcare have all aggravated the pain.

An over-reliance on migrant labour has suppressed local wages. Real wages here have remained relatively flat while local youth unemployment hovers at around 10%.

The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research explains the circumstances surrounding the drop in the Consumer Sentiments Index to 77.1 as follows:

  • Current household finances deteriorate
  • Income and job outlook lacklustre
  • Anxieties over higher prices grow
  • Burly spending plans amid waning incomes and jobs

The voting scare for the BN in Parliament last night could be a harbinger of things to come in the months leading up the general election.

Given the lack of enthusiasm for the state of the economy – despite the rosy figures – it is difficult to see the BN calling for an early election.

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What last night’s vote shows is that the unexpected, even the unimaginable, can occur when we least expect it. Indeed, the BN cannot take the general election for granted.

Opposition MPs, for their part, will have to move away from neoliberal economic policies that have burdened the rakyat and come up with a more people-centred platform if they are to capture the public imagination.

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