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When a debate takes the cake

The enlarged economic 'cake' has been gobbled up over the years, mainly by cronies of the ruling elite

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Suddenly cake has become an overnight sensation – as if competing with the ever infectious corruption – since former Prime Minister Najib Razak used it as a metaphor for the national economy at the recent “silent debate” between him and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

In the segment of the debate that focused on the country’s economy and its future direction, Najib argued that the nation needs mega-projects, while national assets should not be sold off, in a conscious effort to help enlarge the economic cake that is to be sliced eventually for the benefit of the common people.

This approach, he continued, would generate an immense number of jobs that would benefit thousands of people, particularly those on the lower rung of our society.

Social media users went into overdrive with the cake metaphor, using memes and political cartoons in an attempt akin to upstaging Najib.

The frenzy on the internet was triggered by Anwar’s swift rebuttal that enlarging the economy in such a manner would not necessarily benefit the common people, especially if a very large slice of the cake is swallowed whole by a dominant group.

It also depends, he added, on who decides how the cake is to be divided and who should be the beneficiaries, which in the recent past were mainly those who hailed from the elite class.

To be sure, there were a number of postings that made their rounds on social media that took a dig at Najib’s notion of economic cake.

For instance, there was a picture of the so-called Najib Razak’s multilayered cake, with each layer dedicated to alleged recipients of money, which included Najib himself, stepson Riza Aziz and fugitive Jho Low.

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Another picture that went viral was one of Najib and wife Rosmah Mansor standing in front of a gargantuan cake, anxiously witnessed by people.

A clip from a seemingly Donald Duck animation was edited only to reveal a small slice of cake left for the common people, whom Najib valiantly insisted in the debate were “king” (as in his “cash is king” mantra).

For those who have been following the unfolding of the 1MDB scandal, understanding the social media postings would be a piece of cake.

The Anwar vs Najib debate was dubbed “silent” because the audience were forewarned by the organisers not to make the usual noise of cheering and jeering – or else they would be booted out.

It was almost like having a boxing match where the spectators are expected to be silent and emotionless even after one of the boxers is punched to a pulp. Not that either Anwar or Najib was violently ferocious in their verbal attacks.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of policies were crafted and implemented in an attempt to not only grow the economy but also help improve the living standards of the rakyat or “king”, if you will.

In particular, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was to see to it that the poor, especially the Malays, were not left behind economically and, hence, not deprived of the prosperity attained by the nation as a whole.

In the 1980s, Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s privatisation policy was aimed at supposedly increasing efficiency and productivity, reducing the size of the public sector and eventually creating wealth. Malay participation in the corporate sector was envisioned here.

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It is in this context that critics of the policy argued that only certain Malays and the politically connected took a lion’s share of the wealth created.

The consequent enlarged cake found itself being gobbled up over the years, primarily by cronies of the ruling elite through patronage. The poor, particularly the Malays, ended up getting the crumbs.

In recent years, the economic disparity within the Malay community has yawned ever wider, giving rise to the question: what happened to the enlarged cake that was supposedly generated by the NEP and other policies?

It does not help either that public funds meant to be spent on development projects for the people dried up because of corruption committed particularly by people who were entrusted to prudently manage the national coffers.

As a result, the cake has not grown big enough for the poor and those who struggle on a daily basis to put food on the table to have a juicy bite of it.

It’s nice of certain members of the ruling elite to toss up the enticing idea of an enlarged cake, but such a promise may well turn out to be pie in the sky for as long as the issue of uneven slices is not seriously addressed. – The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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