All about the money
Fifty shades of ringgit
The main news from the weekend, of course, is le Budget.
It was much-anticipated and talked about, and in a lotta ways, Budget 2021 turned out to be as many had predicted – a massive financial plan (our largest to date) for the next 12 months, with one clear focus: dealing with Covid-19.
The very long story short, the Budget is valued at RM322.54 billion (up from RM297 billion last year). But of course, the devil’s in the deets.
Formulating a plan to protect us all in this time of flux was never gonna be easy given the shit the country’s been put through over the past year thanks to the on-going pandemic, issues with palm oil prices, a decrease in oil revenue, and other business losses, as well as job cuts. So it’s admirable that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government has managed it somewhat. Even so, there’re significant concerns.
For one, in the past, when the country’s economy took a hit, the government’s modus operandi was always to spend less. This time though, given how Covid has ravaged everything, it just can’t afford to. If you remember, the gomen raised the country’s debt ceiling for the first time in over 10 years so more moolah can be borrowed to help cushion the blow.
If you’re wondering if spending this much is a concern when the country’s lost a whole load of cash, the short answer is IT IS!
You see, MooMoo and co expect to make only about RM236.42 billion next year, RM86.12 billion less than it plans to spend. And that means it’s gotta 1) borrow and 2) eventually pay it all back.
Hence, if you look at some of the breakdowns – this one from Malaysiakini is well put together – you’ll notice the plan is to cut expenditure in certain areas and spend instead in areas that could help stimulate the economy and generate revenue.
Incidentally, you can take this quiz to get a sense of what’s in it for you.
Fifty darker shades of ringgit
Now, lotsa smart people and their dogs have already examined the money plan in detail, so we’ll refrain from doing that. Instead, we’ve broken it down in simple terms into three separate sections – The Good, The Bad and The Fugly (where it appears a bunch of circus monkeys had planned the Budget instead).
- EPF withdrawals
There’d been much debate about allowing Employees’ Provident Fund contributors to withdraw cash from their retirement savings to deal with the fallout from Covid. In the end, though, the government’s managed to tread that fine line between present and future needs well by capping the drawable amount to RM500 a month, capped at RM6,000 over 12 months.
EPF funds are meant as a safety net for our old age lah. But the harsh reality is many people have lost work, been hit hard and could just really use cash in hand now, not when they’re old and grey. Of course, the eligibility criteria for this has not been made clear. Can anyone withdraw the moolah or only those who can prove they’re in dire straits?
Economists don’t all agree that the move is good for the long term, especially as the Budget also sees employees’ mandatory EPF contributions reduced to 9% a month beginning Jan 2021. However, the 9% move will only be in effect for one year. So it’s not too bad, right?
- Education in the spotlight
At RM50 billion, Education got a huge slice of the pie, and that’s great! Parents with schoolgoing kids have been under tremendous financial constraints. Many of the gomen’s initiatives – free milk programme for primary school kids (it was once supposed to be free breakfast for everyone, if you remember, but that plan was junked), free laptops, monthly transport pass subsidies as well as after-school childcare for the B40 community – should go some way in easing their burden.
Still, we do have one question: What’s the bloody point in handing out free laptops to kids when in many parts of Malaysia, you have to climb a tree or raise modems up flagpoles to get internet access?
- Mental health gets a boost
The story last week of a man who crashed his car was into his workplace after being fired and then killed himself by walking into oncoming traffic is heartbreaking. Still, it shows just how badly the tough times are affecting us psychologically.
Just consider the whopping 35,000 distress calls the Health Ministry received between March and October, or this report last month which points to half a million Malaysians being depressed this year alone. We, too, had covered the psychological trauma of the pandemic in a special report back in April, not too long after the very start of the movement control order (MCO).
Which is why the allocation of RM24 million to help people deal with stress and other psychological issues couldn’t have come at a better time. It may not be a lot of moolah in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a good start.
- Healthcare funding slashed?
Like Education, the Health Ministry received a massive shot in the arm. Thing is though, despite an RM31.9 billion injection that includes provisions for the purchase of coronavirus vaccines as well as higher tax relief for medical expenses, critics allege that funding for public health has been majorly slashed.
They point to drastically reduced cash for stuff like cancer and kidney disease treatment. And the cuts don’t just stop there (allegedly! allegedly!), but affect everything from funds for procuring medical supplies to anaesthesiology and intensive care!
Money Man Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz has wholly denied this, and says what’s actually taken place is a re-parking, if you will, of certain things. The reasons for this are a little complicated – one part of the argument has to do with reclassifying stuff as “development” rather than “operational” expenses, so we can borrow funds to pay for them. However, the bottom line is the money’s still there, or so he’s claimed.
We just don’t know enough to say how this could hurt/not hurt us in the long run. But we feel it’s worth flagging ‘cos as commentators like ex-Penang Institute senior fellow S.K. Khor and Bandar Kuching MP Kelvin Yii point out, there’s very little transparency on how the money’s gonna be spent.
- Financial aid not targeted
On paper, a total of RM50 million to retrain aviation staff and a further RM100 million set aside for upskilling retrenched workers seem like a great move. Unfortunately, the funds don’t guarantee poor workers are gonna receive relief. In fact, the only thing the allocations do guarantee is that upskilling trainers will be able to make some moolah.
The problem of a lack of targetted relief is also apparent when you look at the allocations for civil servants and government pensioners. Yes, many pensioners would welcome an extra RM300 in their bank accounts. However, not everyone needs it! And that’s doubly true for civil servants who’re due a bonus RM600 in their pay packets despite having not suffered job loss the way private-sector workers have.
- Tak berJasa
There’re loads of things that don’t make sense about Budget 2021 – like an RM50 e-wallet allocation only for youths aged 18-20 – but nothing’s quite as ridiculous as the RM85.5 million the gomen plans to pump into the Comms Ministry’s Special Affairs Department (Jasa).
Jasa, in case you didn’t already know, was an agency set up in 1959 to help disseminate info on gomen initiatives – in other words, propaganda arm – and it did an ace job in the past of assisting former premiers to get the word out on stuff like Wawasan 2020 and 1Malaysia. But because it was primarily seen as nothing more than a PR tool by the former powers that be, it was closed down when Pakatan Harapan came to power.
Now, though, the Perikatan Nasional administration wants it revived. And not just that, it wants to pump in approximately three times what the old Barisan Nasional regimes used to! Talk about mengenang jasa (geddit?!).
Bersatu’s info chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan has said the gomen wants to listen to and engage the rakyat, while the Comms Ministry’s insisted it’s really about fighting “fake news”. But really lah, when even Umno is questioning the crazy allocation, you know, you’ve messed up. Big time! So maybe you wanna think about using some of that Jasa cash on, oh we dunno, dilapidated schools or bonuses for medical frontliners. Now, that’d really be jasa baik.
P.S. The Budget will need to be approved in Parliament before the allocations see the light of day. Yet, it already looks like there might be problems getting the opposition on board, because well, Zaf and co don’t seem to have taken many of the suggestions – like a blanket loan moratorium extension – put forth. We guess we’ll have to see how this one plays out eh?
Freeze! Don't move!
You probably know about the new curbs and what it’ll entail. However, on the off chance you’re blur as hell, the long and short of it is that except for Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis and Sarawak, the country’ll be on conditional lockdown for a month.
This means the CMCO rules that were in effect in KL, Putrajaya, Selangor and Sabah these past weeks will now apply to Johor, Kedah, Perak, Penang, Negeri Sembilan and Melaka too. So that’s no interstate travel for almost everyone, no more than two people travelling in a car, and 6am to 10pm operating hours for restaurants, shops, stalls and the lot (you can view the full list of SOPs here.)
In short, despite Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah’s qualified positivity, we’re back where we were six months ago. The only question now is whether we can hope to be out of the woods by the Dec 6 deadline or if Malaysia will see yet another extension and arrest Santa when he tries to wiggle down our (non-existent) chimneys next month.
Anyway, here’s a rundown of the other Covid-19 highlights from the weekend:
- As mentioned earlier, Friday’s daily infections figure was record-breaking. However, the Health Ministry has claimed that crazy stat was due to increased screening at active prison clusters in Sabah.
- The daily numbers have steadied somewhat since then, thankfully, and on Sunday, after five days of figures of over a thousand, we saw a mere 852 infections recorded. Active cases in the country are now at 11,689 with the death toll at 286.
- The National Security Council (NSC) will meet today to decide if the whole of Sabah should be placed under an enhanced MCO (EMCO).
- The Health Ministry has outlined the criteria it uses to assess the risk of Covid-19 transmissions. It’s quite detailed, and you can check out the explanation here. Among the things being considered are the rate at which infections increase, area locations, and the proportion of asymptomatic cases.
- Ikea Damansara and the Top Glove factory in Klang are now among the locations that’ve been hit by Covid-19. Here’s the updated list of affected places.
After dilly-dallying for what seemed like forever, Sunday saw the Education Ministry finally announce a blanket closure of all schools and the further postponements of government exams like SPM and STPM.
The shutting of schools will not upset teaching and learning, middle-parting Education Minister Radzi Jidin has said, as lessons are set to continue online until the end of the school term in mid-December. However, the start dates for next year’s school term for some levels – Form 2 and 3 students, for example, are only due back physically in March 2021 – will most certainly be affected, as will the previously mentioned government exams.
For the mo, SPM is scheduled to kick off on Feb 22 (the previous start date was Jan 6) with the Semester 3 STPM exams slated for March 8 (March 1 previously). Considering how wishy-washy the Education Ministry’s been up to this point, you gotta wonder if there’ll be yet another deferment in the event our Covid numbers remain high when the 2021 academic year begins in January.
We understand the current situation may warrant some pretty drastic measures. But what could’ve helped a tonne is if MOE was transparent about its strategies for students from the start of the pandemic or you know, did its homework and planned ahead. Those never happened, though – clearly there’s no tiger parenting in our lovely ministry.
And now, with weeks to go to the end of the year, it has said lessons will continue digitally, and plans are being made for special revisions for exam-bound students. But here’s the thing – parents, educators and students still have no idea about what’s in store or what online lessons will mean for kids who’ve struggled this whole year without access to computers and the net.
Also, while we’re on the subject, what the hell happens to children – about 600,000 of them at last count – who rely on the ministry’s Supplementary Food Programme now that schools are closing? Is there a plan to get meals delivered to them? Or are they, like the students without access to technology, just expected to make do?
If it seems like we’re pissed, well, guess what, we are! ‘Cos really, it’s one thing to close schools, and quite another to fail our kids. Again and again and again.
It was not all Budget and Covid. Here are other things which’ve managed to make it into the news this past weekend:
- Two people were killed when two helicopters collided on Sunday near Taman Melawati in Ampang. The accident is believed to have occurred during a flight training exercise.
Ex-Malaysia Airlines Berhad chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya and another flyer, who were in the second chopper, escaped with minor injuries.
- Parti Warisan Sabah will defend the Batu Sapi parliament seat left vacant following the death of its incumbent, former Pakatan Harapan minister VK Liew.
Sabah BN, Harapan, Parti Bersatu Sabah, Sabah STAR, Sabah Progressive Party and PAS have all said they’re sitting out the Dec 5 by-election, though Sabah Bersatu has yet to make a decision.
- The former student leader of the University of Malaya Association of New Youth (Umany) was arrested Saturday after he started recording cops at his successor’s home. Officers were there to conduct a search as part of a sedition probe. However, the Malaysian Bar has said there’s nothing wrong with filming cops in action.
To refresh your memory, the student group’s being probed over an article concerning the Agong’s role (you know, after PM Moo’s ill-advised emergency bid).
- Football legend Mohamad Bakar, the outstanding winger who featured for Malaysia in the 1972 Olympics, passed away Sunday from bone marrow failure. Mohamad, 75, was also a respected coach and even served as Harimau Malaya boss from 1985-86.
- With Kamala Harris’s ascent to the vice-presidency of the United States, there was great celebration around the world. Her achievement as a woman, and a woman of colour, has raised spirits among many people – including in Malaysia. But as so often with Malaysia, it’s also shown the hypocrisy among our leaders and the people around them.
For Exhibit A in the display of dumbassery, we present deputy youth and spots minister Wan Ahmad Fayhsal, who searched for the highest horse he could find, got on it and pontificated about the beauty of democracy. Yeah, we’re talking about the same guy who’s part of a government that is in situ thanks to a subversion of the democratic process.
For Exhibit B, we present Amira Azmin, who waxed lyrical about a woman of colour becoming VP and how it shows nothing is impossible. Great sentiment, except for the fact that it was dear Amira’s dad, a certain Azmin Ali, whose defection caused the fall of the government and the removal of our own glass ceiling breaker, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, from her post as Deputy Prime Minister.
Of course, the internet was having none of this shit and the comments came in thick, fast and nasty and amounted to one sentiment – get the fuck outta here with that shit. And it was well deserved. Considering the numerous glass ceilings in place for women and the titanium ceilings in place for minorities in our politics, the last things our leaders should open their traps about is this.
“... democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it.”
- Kamala Harris -
IN INTERNATIONAL NEWS
- After days upon days of counting Joe Biden was finally declared the winner of the 2020 United States presidential election early Sunday morning. But while news orgs have already called the election, it’ll be some way yet before the results are certified, and Uncle Joe and vice president-elect Kamala Harris – the first woman, first black and first South Asian veep in American history – take office.
Here’s a guide to what happens next. And yeah, it includes what could happen if Donald Trump mounts a legal challenge, as he’s promised to do. And here’s what’s expected from Biden’s first term.
- In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is expected to retain power in the country’s second general election since the end of military rule. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won by a landslide in 2015.
- Global Covid-19 infections have shot past 50 million, with more than 1.25 million reported dead. The new wave of infections has moved at a brutal pace, with 21 days being all that was needed to go from 40 million to 50 million cases.
- He’s the world’s longest-running TV game show host. Who is Alex Trebek?! Sadly Trebek, the host of Jeopardy!, has died following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. The multiple Emmy Award winner was 80.