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Should Budget 2021 be defeated? – An alternative view

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Let’s reach across the ethnic divide and start understanding the issues that other communities are grappling with, Jeyakumar Devaraj writes.

There has been much angst in the Indian Malaysian community over the perceived injustices in in Budget 2021.

Many commenters on social media have highlighted and lamented the fact that, while RM11.1bn has been allocated for the socioeconomic development of the bumiputra community, only RM100m has been allocated for the Indian community for the same purpose.

Many term the budget discriminatory and ethnic-centred. Some go on to calculate the percentages or the per capita allocation based on the RM11.1bn and RM100m figures. Of course, the differences are huge, and they seem to support the assertion that “there is nothing in this budget for the Indian community”.

There are several aspects of Budget 2021 I am unhappy about. But we need to be rational and fair in our criticism.

First, we need to re examine the notion that there “is nothing in Budget 2021 for the Indian community”. Quite a number of allocations in the Budget are colour blind:

  • the BPN (National Caring Aid) cash transfers are for everyone in the bottom 40% and middle 40% of househoulds, irrespective of ethnicity
  • the wage support schemes to help keep people at work is for all workers earning below a certain wage
  • the RM31bn Ministry of Health budget and the RM50.4bn allocation for education are for all Malaysians, irrespective of ethnicity
  • thousands of Indian Malaysians get welfare assistance
  • the Employment Insurance Scheme covers all formal sector workers who are retrenched, and the list goes on

So it is incorrect to argue that this Budget completely ignores non-bumiputra communities.

But given the decades of ethnic-based political indoctrination in Malaysia, the assertion that this budget is only for the Malay community is accepted by too many of our citizens as true! Hence the angst. And sadly, we keep drifting further from the goal of building a harmonious society.

Another important point overlooked by the critics of this Budget is that there have been similar provisions for socioeconomic uplifting of the bumiputra community in the federal budgets under Barisan Nasional and even under Pakatan Harapan.

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For example, in October 2019, Lim Guan Eng allocated RM6.6bn for Mara and UiTM (Mara University of Technology), RM1bn through Syarikat Jaminan Pembiayaan Perniagaan (SJPP) and SME Bank for bumiputra small-medium enterprises (SMEs), RM445m to Tekun, Perbadanan Usahawan Nasional Bhd (PUNB), Pelaburan Hartanah Berhad (PHB) and Teraju in Budget 2020.

He also pledged that the federal government would procure about RM4.8bn through bumiputra vendors in 2020. This all added up to RM12.8bn. In contrast, only RM100m was allocated for Mitra in Budget 2020 Budget, tabled by the PH government.

However, the allocations in Budget 2020 budget didn’t elicit the vehement criticisms that we are witnessing now. Why is this so? Is it because the PH was “our” government, so we didn’t even examine the Budget that closely? And now, as we are angry with the Perikatan Nasional government, it is OK for us to hurl brickbats at them without doing too much fact-checking?

Then how different are we from Umno and Pas, which whipped up Malay anxiety over the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination? Is it then kosher in Malaysia to exaggerate issues because we do not like the government of the day even though such politicking is only partially based on facts and it aggravates ethnic tensions and creates an us-against-them mentality?

The fact is the bumiputra community has been under-performing in the SME sector. Sure, in numerical terms there are many Malay SMEs but most of them are micro size. About 40% of assets in the SME sector are owned by Chinese Malaysians and another 40% are owned by foreigners. Less than 20% are owned by bumiputra individuals.

It has been government policy under BN and PH to implement programmes to build the capacity of bumiputra businesses. This is not a new policy brought in by Muhiyiddin Yassin or PN.

It is undeniable that a large portion of financial aid set aside to develop bumiputra enteprenuership has been misused and been pocketed by the well connected. These generous allocations have not actually helped build business capacity in the bumiputra community.

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But does that mean the nation should give up on the effort to increase bumiputra participation in the SME sector? Shouldn’t our focus be on how this could be achieved and how best to prevent the heavy leakages that have been occurring all this while?

I fully realise that my stand on this issue will not be well received by those indoctrinated to see everything in racial terms. I will be criticised and so too will the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).

But Malaysians who care about building an inclusive and harmonious society should not cower in silence. We need to speak out and build the middle ground. We need to “be the change we wish to see in our country”.

It is relatively easy to canvass the real and perceived problems faced by one’s own community. The more shrilly one complains and the more outlandish one’s demands are, the more support one gets from the community. One is perceived as a true communal champion. And this is what many politicians tend to do, and it wins them votes. It also creates a competition among politicians to be the better champion of their community.

But this sort of politics has set us further and further apart. And it also makes it difficult to govern if by some chance we actually win federal power – for this kind of politicking raises the expectations of different ethnic groups to unrealistic levels. PH was caught in this situation.

If we want to build a harmonious nation, we need to reach across the ethnic aisle. We need politicians and social activists to take the time to understand the problems faced by members of other ethnic groups and work with them to build multi-ethnic networks that address these problems. We need to build trust and dispel the misconceptions that 60 years of over-ethnicised politicking has generated in this country.

Acknowledging the social and economic problems of other ethnic groups does not mean that one is ‘betraying’ one’s own community – though this is how some of the over-indoctrinated will view it! In fact, many of the problems – like affordable housing, poor public transport, underfunded and overcrowded public hospitals, poorly maintained flats, inadequate savings for the elderly – are common to all communities and would be more easily solved if we all work together.

Many of the critics have called for the defeating of Budget 2021 in Parliament. I would seriously caution against this.

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At this point, there does not seem to be any political leader in Malaysia who can form a stable government if the PN government is brought down.

There is a significant risk that the defeat of the Budget will lead to a declaration of an emergency, as the alternative would be a holding a general election in the middle of a surge in the coronavirus pandemic.

A declaration of an emergency would be a big step backwards for Malaysia. The limited checks and balances that the parliamentary process makes possible will be suspended. Kleptocrats will have more opportunities to amass wealth. The latent authoritarian tendencies in some of our current ministers and in the police force will show themselves. It is not a good place to take our nation.

So, my fellow Malaysians, can we all ‘chill’ a bit? Let’s cut down the ethnicised politicking but keep advocating for government programmes to protect the most vulnerable – the families whose incomes have plunged and the businesses facing severe cashflow problems.

Let’s reach across the ethnic divide and start understanding the issues other communities are grappling with. Let’s think as Malaysians and start advocating for the solution of problems faced by other ethnic groups.

Maybe this sort of approach will, over time, enable us to build a principled political coalition (one that rejects ethnic politicking) that can unite our people and take this nation forward.

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