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Five ways to improve economic livelihood of the person on the street By Dr Ong Kian Ming

Publish date: Tue, 20 Feb 2024, 12:14 PM

(Feb 20): The fourth-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth figures for Malaysia, which were released on Feb 16, showed a slower-than-expected growth rate of 3% year-on-year, which resulted in the Malaysian economy growing at 3.7% in 2023, lower than the initially projected 4%. While economists and policymakers will debate and discuss various reasons for why this is the case - lower external demand resulting in a drop in exports and a fall in manufacturing, for example - for the person on the street, they would not be able to feel or tell the difference between a 3.7% and a 4% GDP growth rate.

The government needs to understand that debating and discussing the nuances of statistics, while important to those in the financial sector, has very little impact on the masses and the voting population. For them, what they have been negatively impacted by since the opening up of the economy post Covid-19 in 2022 have been as follows:

  1. The expiry of the loan moratorium for housing and car loans at the end of 2021, no more Employees Provident Fund (EPF) withdrawals after 2022, and the end of Covid-19 related assistance at the end of 2022
  2. Above normal headline inflation rates of more than 3% in 2022 and between 2.5% and 3% in 2023 due to supply chain disruptions from Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and increased imported inflation due to a weak ringgit, and less disposable income from rising interest rates
  3. The increasing strength of the Singapore dollar to RM3.56 today that has made Malaysia less attractive as a place to work, especially for those living in Johor

At the same time, businesses have been feeling pressures because of the following:

  1. A sudden increase in electricity prices in December 2022 because of delays by the previous government in implementing the Imbalance Cost Past Through (ICPT) mechanism
  2. Shortage of foreign labour which resulted in upward wage pressure for existing and new staff (without seeing increases in productivity)
  3. Increase in costs to comply with changes in the Employment Act in 2023
  4. Increase in costs because of the weaker ringgit, the war in Ukraine and supply chain disruptions
  5. Increase in costs in hiring new foreign labour (including expensive 'agent' fees)

In addition, despite the high foreign direct investments (FDIs) announced, there is usually a lag of a few years before these FDIs are actualised, and a few more years before the local supply chain ecosystem is integrated into the activities of foreign investors and the benefits can be felt “on the ground” among those who provide other services to this ecosystem.

Hence, the government should not be surprised if the relatively positive economic numbers announced (at least compared to the Covid-19 pandemic times) are not received positively by the person on the street.

What can the unity government do in response to the prevailing public sentiment that the economy does not seem to be well managed at the moment? The following are my recommendations:

  1. The government should acknowledge the challenges it is facing in managing the economy and stop blaming the past governments on everything, including 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) causing the slide in the ringgit. This makes the current government seem ineffective to the public and also brings attention away from some of the positive government policies which have been announced, such as the National Energy Transition Roadmap (NETR) and the New Industrial Master Plan 2030, which will take some time to actualise
  2. Have policy consistency, so that families and businesses can plan ahead for issues such as increased diesel and petrol prices when the subsidies are gradually withdrawn this year. Until now, we don’t have any concrete timelines on when these withdrawals are going to take place, and more importantly, what is the amount of targeted subsidies that will replace these targeted subsidies and who will be eligible for them
  3. Announce roll-out plans for the important initiatives that were in Budget 2024, including funding details of the NIMP 2030, NETR-related funding schemes, tax incentives for global business centres, just to name a few examples. The longer these are delayed, the less confidence the public will have in the implementation of agendas under the unity government
  4. Announce and roll out initiatives related to important economic catalysts that will have significant multiplier effects. These include rolling out new Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) categories (important for the property, tourism, and education sectors), announcing the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Line 3 project (important for the construction industry), and working on specific initiatives that were identified in the joint press statement between Malaysia and Singapore on the special economic zone for Johor, just to name a few. These announcements will not only get the market excited, but they will translate into quickly felt economic benefits on the ground
  5. Finally, this government needs to have better strategised and coordinated communication plans, so that it doesn’t end up shooting itself in the foot. One recent example is the announcement by food and cost of living task force chairman and Bukit Gantang Member of Parliament Datuk Syed Abu Hussin on the introduction of a single category of 'Beras Madani' or 'Madani Rice' costing RM30/kg, which had not even been decided by the Ministry of Agriculture or the Cabinet. This kind of amateurism in public policy announcements only further contributes to the narrative that the unity government is not competent in the management of the economy

It's not too late to save the economic narrative of the unity government, and for it to prove to the person on the street that their livelihood will be better under the Madani government. But time is slowly but surely running out.

Dr Ong Kian Ming is a former deputy international trade and industry minister.

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in malaysia we are obsessed with being Juara Kampung while others the rest of the world are chasing Juara Dunia

2 months ago

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