Monday, 18 March 2013
Santa Claus politics underscore Malaysia’s elections - the "sweeteners" will be paid for by the same voters who thought they got them for free
“The intense fight for votes has led both the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak and the opposition PR to promise more and more populist measures.
“You could call it Santa Claus politics,” Reme Ahmad, assistant foreign news editor in the widely-read Straits Times, wrote in an opinion piece for the paper’s Sunday edition.
He noted that Najib who leads the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has been dishing out more cash “gifts” to offset rising living costs that are the main concerns of a significant 40 per cent of the 13.3 million voters struggling with bread-and-butter issues; and signal there may be more to come if the coalition maintains power.
Among the billions of ringgit worth of sweeteners he listed were the second round of RM500 cash aid for each household, RM200 smartphone rebates for the hundreds of thousands of youths, the RM250 student book vouchers and just last week, pay hikes for the country’s 230,000 policemen and soldiers who are seen to form a core deposit in the coalition’s vote bank.
The writer noted that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition, which is seen to be a viable contender to take federal power for the first time, has also promised many goodies.
Among them, he listed free university education, cheaper utility bills, lower transport costs through cuts in car and petrol prices and highway tolls that formed the key proposals in PR’s manifesto launched last month.
“But here is one worry the politicians are downplaying.
“With all the goodies disbursed or promised, will the next government shift more public money towards productive activities such as upgrading ports and boosting worker education, or will it be forced to give yet more sugar and spice to voters fattened by everything nice?” the writer asked.
Reme said that the reality was that sugary deals and promises of more handouts will not necessarily reel in the votes, as several political observers here have said.
“The harsh reality is that the more you give, the more people want.
“A second point is that the freebies have to be paid for by somebody down the line,” Reme said.
He pointed that Malaysia is already into its 16th year of a budget deficit since the 1997 Asian financial crisis that the money to pay for the government’s spending came from taxes and “other piggy banks, such as national oil firm Petronas”.
He reminded that tax revenue that could have been spent to build new roads may instead be funnelled for other purposes to keep the political election pledges, like petrol price subsidies or compensating highway companies to remove their toll booths.
“In other words, they will be paid for by the same voters who thought they got them for free.”