The ‘Mother of All Budgets’ has been presented. The budget as the most important document in any given year is carefully crafted to forecast economic conditions for the upcoming year and has profound macroeconomic implications.

Our major trading partners, international economic organisations and investors alike will follow it in earnest. Accordingly, it has to be prepared up to the highest standards.

A lot has been said on the goodies and let us now examine areas where many may have overlooked, with the intent to improve.

In the introduction section, there was a conciliatory call on us to always be gracious, forgive and forget. However, there was a negative undertone when it states predictions by many on the 2017 Budget were untrue. It is then followed by a condition attached. The next section also carried negative undertones in terms of lies and non-stop propaganda by irresponsible parties.

Only a few months ago, the 2016 NTP report stated that the Government continues to maintain its target of achieving a balanced budget by 2020. Suddenly, it is a big challenge now and the new target is a near-balanced budget by 2020. International rating agencies may have maintained their ratings, but ratings review criteria on an ongoing and on an annual basis. Ratings generally publishes written comments in their entirety, except when the full text would be unsuitable for reasons of tone or substance. For Malaysia, we have been cautioned of a downside risk to the optimistic revenue projections and the lack of any major fiscal and in particular revenue reforms.

In term of numbers, the success stories look good on the initiatives implemented during the past eight years. However, one-off numbers without corresponding positive trend and comparison with numbers that are 20 years ago or during a recession do not hold water.

Income per capita may have increased close to fifty percent from 2010 to 2017 but the salary of the rakyat did not enjoy the same rate of increase or rather suffer a deterioration in their standard of living and even health. Recently, the Director General of Health said hospitals are seeing an additional 10 million outpatients in 2016 compared to the 45 million received in 2015. Further, we should standardise the report on income per capita – last year it was reported on a Purchasing Power Parity basis.

Investments may have shown a steady increase from 2009 to-date but it could have been more. The steep fall from 6th place in 2013 to 24th in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report lends support to this assumption.

Since 2020 is just a couple years away, many Malaysians would have expected some emphasis on how to achieve the stated goals that are still lagging and a review of its report card. But, more is said about TN50.

We have to be extra careful on the statements made re provision of basic necessities for the rakyat, easing their burden and providing a comfortable life. The continuous huge BR1M give away and the affordable housing issues do not lend credence to those statements.

Also, don’t be too proud with the statement – for the first time in history a large allocation is provided to assist farmers, fishermen, smallholders   and rubber tappers. It could be interpreted as an admission that these groups were not properly taken care previously.

Earlier in March, the Tourism and Culture Ministry aimed to record 31 million tourist arrivals in 2017 (2016: 26.8 million). For the 2018 budget, it is estimated that there will be only 28 million tourist arrivals but with a big jump in allocation. A few months ago, the Pemandu Annual Report stated that NKEA remains on course towards its target of achieving 36 million tourist arrivals in 2020 and the ministry achieved 112% of its Key Performance Indicators (KPI) in 2016. If the ministry had exceeded its KPI, it should be expecting more than 31 million arrivals in 2018 coupled with bigger allocations.  

The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) Project was mentioned and the highlight is transporting cargo and passengers within four hours. There were reservations on the viability of this project in terms of ‘last mile’ connectivity with its attendant costs and the possibility of the Kra Canal.

On the decision to expedite MRT3, I trust a detailed cost-benefit analysis would have been finalised and agreed upon.

Recent achievements in higher education is laudable but the next question is why our graduates remain unemployed? One study said it is due to poor attitude, lack of English proficiency and poor communication. Appropriate steps have to be taken to tackle these issues.

Where is the urgency and I guess many people still cannot understand the need for nine more PERMATA centres when we need to upgrade and refurbish more than 2,000 dilapidated schools given limited funds. Getting to school or access to education is difficult in rural areas. And it is not a beautiful picture or productive and of course, tiring, when you have to travel for hours by boat.

I have reservations on the the MRT success story on the part of savings of RM2 billion from the initial construction cost of RM23 billion. Flashback to 2014, the New Straits Times (NST) on 2 July 2014, reported that the former CEO said “… seven more contracts worth slightly below RM1 billion will be given out this year, bringing the total value of jobs awarded to RM23 billion”.

Individual income tax rates reduction is surely good news. Additional  disposable income can be spent by the rakyat but will they be buying more or buying the same quantity due to earlier price increases by manufacturers, wholesalers and traders without due enforcement? Again, the question of standard of living.

So much funds have been poured into housing and incentives too but what is needed now is physical delivery. Too many projects are outstanding due to various reasons and stakeholders need to ‘come to the table’ to resolve issues and keeping the rakyat in mind.

For the Government-Linked Companies (GLCs) to lead and be an example to the corporate sector, the KPIs to be given to them should be ones that are really key and impactful. We need to avoid the case like the Tourism and Culture Ministry discussed above to recur. Fact is, last year the Second Finance Minister warned the management of GLCs or firms parked under Minister of Finance Inc (MOF Inc) to ensure that their leadership results in profits and job opportunities. On this, I think it is for the GLC to follow the examples of the corporate sector and not the other way round.

If I may, try to instil entrepreneurial spirit in them that inspire others to become the best they can be – be it from passion and positivity to leadership and ambition.

The establishment of the Socio-economic Research Institute(SERI) is a good initiative. But we already have the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD) which has a Department of Social Welfare. Are there special reasons for SERI to be parked under the Prime Minister’s Department just to cover aspects of spiritual, ethical and universal pure values? It would be good to put a stop to duplication and practice delegation or more precisely, house it in the relevant ministry. Indeed, it will raise the profile of MWFCD and by extension, its minister, who happens to be a lady.

I like the statement on being rich in soul and character i.e. par excellence in worldly and hereafter but I feel rotten and pathetic reading corruption, abuse of power, bullying and gangsterism cases on a daily basis. It is as though there is no believe and fear as quoted in verse 96 of Surah Al-A’raf.

There is this statement, “This Budget that has never been crafted so well,  even during the last 22 years or…”, which I see has no relevance or any link to the Mother of All Budgets.

An important item that is missing since last year is the expected inflation rate. This rate plays an important part when doing projections and shows the government’s ability to control the general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money of the rakyat.

There are a few other points but I feel this article is too long and I will stop here.

From my viewpoint, what is urgently needed now is to ensure the deliverables are duly delivered and check for unfulfilled items from previous years budget. We should also diligently work on how to improve on the rankings in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report and the Global Competitiveness Index (2017: 23rd; 2009: 24th).

In order to achieve the above, the government must forge deep partnerships with the private sector and the rakyat because it’s role is not to plan every move but to forge a common understanding of the changes and draw on feedback.

By the way, my other suggestions are available in the article “’Back to the future’ with Budget 2018” published on 12 Sept 2017.

I would strongly urge people involved in drafting Budgets to be extra careful and the Ketua Setiausaha to bear responsibility because this document is scrutinised the (whole) world over. And also, please cut down on political statements for we do not need to ‘wash dirty linen’ in public.

My fellow Malaysians, may God bless Malaysia and I beg to propose.

What say you…

WRITER: Saleh Mohammed