Two moments stood out during Thursday night’s debate between Anwar Ibrahim and Najib Razak.
Najib walked into a ‘sucker punch’ when he compared the economy to an expanding cake, which could then be divided among the people.
Anwar’s retort – that one shouldn’t eat the cake by oneself – was one of the standout moments of the debate.
If you listen carefully, someone in the background yelled, “Jho Low!”
Najib didn’t see that coming. This moment sparked loads of memes and cartoons on social media and general hilarity among the masses.
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The other memorable moment was when Najib referred to his infamous “cash is king” slogan, saying the king here referred to the “rakyat”, the people.
This again sparked guffaws among the audience at what was supposed to be a “silent debate” – one strange ground rule was that the audience could not applaud or cheer on pain of being thrown out of the auditorium! – and across the nation. Hilarious!
Like many others, I was ambivalent about the debate, switching channels between the Thomas Cup badminton quarterfinals and this political showdown. Ahead of the debate, a friend remarked, “Why would I want to listen to what a convict has to say?”
Some felt the debate would only project Najib as a credible national leader. But at the debate, the convicted former prime minister, shorn of his PR team around him and stripped of his carefully choreographed ‘Bossku’ persona, at times looked out of sorts – sometimes red in the face and at other times like a deer in the headlights.
Anwar too stuttered a bit, now and then. Perhaps our politicians are not used to live debates on national TV, which are different from parliamentary monologues with the occasional interruptions.
Regarding the distribution of the economic cake, Najib cited the Gini coefficient to argue that income inequality had narrowed when Barisan Nasional was in power.
True enough, World Bank historical data shows that Malaysia’s Gini index, which measures income inequality, actually fell from 46.4 in 2003 to 41.1 in 2015. (0 is perfect equality and 100 is perfect inequality).
There’s a problem here. According to the World Bank’s definition, the index measures the distribution of income or, in some cases, consumption expenditure among individuals or households within an economy. The data is based on primary household survey data obtained from government statistical agencies and World Bank country departments.
But in Malaysia, we have huge amounts of unaccounted wealth – with well over one trillion ringgit in illicit outflows over a decade, not to mention personal wealth siphoned out of the country and stashed in tax havens or secret offshore accounts.
Some top politicians and tycoons may not even declare all their income or pay their taxes in full. So how likely are they to declare their incomes and wealth to government statistical agencies and World Bank country departments?
Another issue that cropped up is the old Goods and Services Tax. Najib seemed to think the GST would be the panacea to all the people’s economic pain.
After all, to him, “cash is king” and the king here means the people (yeah right, tell us another one!). So, according to Najibnomics, you just need to raise over RM30bn from GST and then give a slice of the “cake” – maybe RM6bn or so in direct cash handouts – to the people, and hey presto! everyone will be happy (and presumably vote for the giver). How will he spend the balance of the GST revenue raised though?
Anwar missed the point by saying this would create a dependency syndrome, as if cash handouts in themselves are a bad thing. Handouts may be a great help in certain sectors and vulnerable groups and could stimulate the small domestic business sector.
The problem is, how do you raise the funds to finance those cash handouts? The GST is a regressive consumption tax that disproportionately hurts the poor the most (although certain exemptions for essential items may ease the burden). Many would end up paying far more in GST than the cash handouts they receive.
A far better option would be to introduce taxes on the super-wealthy, a progressive income tax, estate duties and windfall profits taxes.
Targeted handouts would help vulnerable groups who really need them, while increased spending on schools and hospitals would help even more people.
Targeted handouts (eg subsidies to fisherfolk and farmers) could also boost the incomes of those involved in food production and strengthen the nation’s food security. Taking these away, as Pakatan Harapan did, led to a loss of support for the new government in 2018.
Anwar did touch on the need to improve schools and hospitals, to curb the rising cost of living and to tackle climate change. That sounded like a leaf out of the People’s Agenda, endorsed by over 50 civil society groups (and which Aliran emailed to all the top party leaders in the country just a few days ago)!
Anwar made a strong and valid point about conducting a forensic audit on Sapura Energy and other failed government-linked firms before they are rescued. Some people have to be held accountable.
Najib didn’t seem to understand that there’s little difference between a government bailout and a Petronas bailout (as if Petronas or the banks are cash cows to paper over massive unaccountable losses).
It may have been a peculiar silent debate; still, it was a positive move (although the choice of one speaker was regrettable) to promote a healthier democratic culture, following the Saifuddin Nasution-Rafizi Ramli debate.
Let’s hope we see more such debates on the issues that really concern the people.