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Friday, September 28, 2012

Fidgety PM delays polls, doles out cash



As the curtain falls on the Budget 2013 speech, it is almost certain that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has decided to call for polls next year, possibly around March.

Despite tabling yet another deficit budget, the Najib administration also announced a slew of cash handouts for BN's biggest potential market - the lower-income group - that will most likely be disbursed before calling for polls.

NONEThe largest recipients of these handouts are in the form of Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia, dubbed BR1M 2.0, an obvious cheeky dig at the Bersih 2.0 coalition.

Households with a combined income of RM3,000 and below would be eligible for a RM500 handout. Unmarried individuals 21 years and above earning RM2,000 and below would be eligible for a RM250 handout.

About 224,000 army veterans who have served 21 years or more will also be eligible for a one-off RM1,000 cash handout, while 55,000 fishermen will be eligible for a RM200 monthly allowance.

Parents will also be allowed to again claim RM100 for each schoolchildren, estimated at 5.4 million pupils, while an estimated 1.3 million pre-university and university students will be able to apply for a RM250 book voucher.

BR1M 2.0 will take time

But as shown during the first phase of BR1M early this year, this process takes time. The first phase of BR1M, including appeals, took until March to complete.

Najib must call for polls by April 28 or else Parliament would be dissolved automatically, and thereafter the Election Commission will have the power to set an election date within 60 days.

NONEThis means that the best window for Najib to call for polls would be around March, when a large number of the electorate are still euphoric from claiming their handouts and should still be in the Chinese New Year mood.

Although the ethics of cash handouts would be questioned, BR1M 2.0 will serve as an important platform for BN because as shown during the first phase, local BN coordinators can abuse the application process for campaigning.

Apart from a one-percent reduction in income tax for those with a taxable income of below RM50,000, it does not look like the budget is designed to please the 1.4 million taxpayers and urbanites with little change to the tax relief and rebate structure.

Urban poor problems
Najib's speech did include an extensive explanation on how the budget would help make housing affordable for first-time buyers in the Klang Valley - cynically dubbed the "new urban poor" by some.

NONEThe Perumahan Rakyat 1Malaysia (PR1MA) scheme, announced at the last budget and which appears stillborn, is mentioned again this year, while the cap on the poorly received My First Home Scheme is increased.

Real property gains tax (RPGT) was also increased but it will take time for the market to find a new equilibrium and is unlikely to cool down the housing market before polls need to be called.

The 123,000 affordable housing units which the government intends to build, some as far as Seremban, will also take time to launch.

Other pressing urban problems such as improving public transportation are not addressed in the budget, although there are provisions for a 50-percent discount for low-income groups and senior citizens riding the KTM Komuter.

Ignoring the urban vote does not come as a surprise as these voters generally vote against the ruling party.

One-upmanship

Although the masses will likely cheer at Najib's slew of goodies, the discerning few would notice that the premier's opening and closing remarks give away his motives and even his weaknesses.

Najib's opening bragged about how BN had kept its promises for 55 years, forming 12 successive governments - a testament of the public's approval of the ruling coalition's performance.

NONEHe then capped off his two-hour speech by taking potshots at opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, mocking him, as absurdly as it sounds, for failing to implement Pakatan Rakyat's policies when he was deputy premier.

For Najib, his budget speech was not so much aimed at the difficult task of reforming the nation's economy and charting a new path for the future, but a dangerous game of one-upmanship in the popularity stakes.

Over the past four years, BN's biggest worry is that Pakatan had shown that it can manage four states reasonably well and providing the electorate a credible alternative.

Unlike his previous budget speeches, Najib today did not seem to exude the same confidence seen when announcing grandiose projects such as the 100-storey mega tower - world's third tallest - nor the multi-billion MRT project.

Instead, Najib seemed to draw comfort in doling out goodies to shore up his support, and not so much his vision. After all, what good is vision if he ends up sitting on the opposition bench.


ANDREW ONG has been part of the Malaysiakini news desk for seven years.

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