by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail Online 17 October 2014

“What’s in it for me?” is the inevitable lens through which most citizens analyse a national budget – rightly so, since it’s their money that the government will be spending, regardless of whether they voted for candidates representing the government party, or how ‘grateful’ they are for the ‘goodies’ they may or may not be getting.

The Finance Minister’s speech is perhaps the only remaining guaranteed set piece of parliamentary oratory in Malaysia; rarely are there long speeches tackling constitutional issues to arrive at powerful conclusions. Now it’s mostly short and punchy statements for easy media consumption, assuming the YB in question isn’t being shouted down by other members or being reprimanded by the Speaker. (For an example of a proper speech, see Tengku Razaleigh’s 20-minute tour de force in denouncing the 1993 constitutional amendments, available on YouTube.)

The budget speech is usually preceded by a photo session featuring the minister showing off the briefcase containing the budget documents outside the Treasury. I cannot find pictures of Tun HS Lee or Tun Tan Siew Sin doing the same, but I presume they did it too, since it’s a Westminster tradition, although in the UK they use a red ministerial box embossed with the royal cypher, of which only four have been used since the 1860s. Photographs suggest that the leather briefcase used last week is different to the one used in 2009.

Since last week the reaction to the Supply Bill 2015 has followed a familiar pattern: opposition MPs and economists question the underlying assumptions, while those representing groups ask “what’s in it for us?”: consumer associations, corporate leaders, gender or ethnically-defined organisations, and patriots of specific states. Understandably, with many households feeling squeezed and there being concern over the introduction of GST, short-term implications have received the most commentary. The challenge for think tanks is to temper the immediate impact with long-term considerations of our economic health.

IDEAS released three press statements on budget day. The first commended Pakatan Rakyat’s shadow budget on the specific point on advocating the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) which we have been championing this year. The second, issued during Dato’ Sri Najib’s speech, praised the importance he placed on developing human capital, especially on vocational and technical education. However, we expressed concern that expenditure on tertiary education might not adequately address the present situation in which thousands of graduates are leaving universities unable to find gainful employment: quality and autonomy in public higher education institutions are also necessary.

The final press release was repeated by IDEAS’ CEO’s subsequent article: that while the first half of the speech recognised economic imperatives like reducing our fiscal deficit, encouraging entrepreneurship, reforming the taxation system, reducing leakages and rationalising subsidies, the second half contradictorily contained many populist hand-outs. Wan Saiful then articulated the sound point that “government money” is really “our money”.

In a later article, following radio and online television interviews (complete with a Lord of the Rings reference), IDEAS’ COO drew attention to the fact that since 2009 the government has tabled supplementary budgets totalling more than RM20 billion per year. Tricia explained the legal mechanism for this – and if the trend is followed there may well be another supplementary budget for 2014.

Others have already criticised the apparent avenues for opaque discretionary spending. But even much of the explicit proposed spending involves procurements – for hospitals, clinics, rural roads, highways, low-cost flats, railway and airport upgrades, motorcycles – that could be made more transparent. There is much the government can do to assure the public that value for money is being achieved and avoid more embarrassing revelations being made by the Auditor General.

IDEAS’ 13th Policy Ideas (available at www.ideas.org.my) contains five recommendations to generate better value for taxpayers’ money through improving Malaysia’s public contracting system: first, to incorporate seven rules into the procurement cycle (specification of evaluation criteria and weightages, transparency in declaring Bumiputera preferences, independent observation of contract evaluation meetings, publication of details of contracts awarded through direct negotiation, publication of criteria used to award contracts, incorporation of a review phase for contractors not selected, creation and publication of government agencies’ annual procurement plans); second, to improve accountability by strengthening investigation processes and punitive actions, and enabling the public to be involved in ensuring the transparency and accountability of government contracting; third, to utilise a streamlined electronic platform for procurement purposes; fourth, to enhance the professionalism and integrity of procurement officers; and finally, to ensure Public Private Partnerships are bound by the same rules as other government contracting.

Perhaps there is a brave YB who might want to take this up in the august House in the on-going debate – or even a Minister bringing it to Cabinet later?

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

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