MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku



10 APRIL 2024

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Budget 2023: another missed opportunity


From Ramesh Chander, Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee

Mainly status quo, part recovery, and part election oriented – various excuses can be made for the 2023 budget unveiled by the new government kicking the can of fiscal and institutional reform further down the road.

In his budget presentation, Prime Minister cum finance minister Anwar Ibrahim asked: “The question is whether there is political will to effect change?”

This was in reference to what he diagnosed as the challenges facing the nation: high debt level, low quality of administration, global uncertainties, slow investment recovery and the rakyat’s economic woes.

However, Anwar’s administration had fewer than 90 days after coming to office to produce the new budget. In addition, he crafted the budget with the looming state elections in mind, where perhaps it is not surprising that change and reform have largely remained rhetoric.

It is clear that what has emerged is based on the original 2023 template presented by former finance minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz last October before GE15 – that is, mainly cosmetic reform.

As a consequence, Anwar’s first full budget since 1997 is the largest budget in Malaysia’s history. But bigger is not necessarily better especially when it results in further bloat of the public service and little evidence of substantive institutional and governance reform measures.

Expenditure: Total forecast spending is RM386.14 billion, of which RM145.5 billion is spent on salaries and operating expenses, RM58.6 billion on subsidies, while RM97 billion is the planned spending on development. The balance is on retirement charges (RM30 billion), debt service charges (RM45.94 billion) and payments to states (RM8.1 billion).

Receipts: This will be financed by RM291.5 billion in revenue, made up of RM218.2 billion in tax revenue and RM73.3 billion in non-tax revenue. This leaves a budget deficit made up from borrowings and payments from GLCs of RM94.60 billion.

Disappointment with the status quo

There are no reforms undertaken on the EPF system, only some token assistance where balances under RM10,000 will receive a RM500 top-up. This is even though there is a retirement crisis in Malaysia.

Likewise, rather than any tax reform, there will be a 2% decrease in tax rates for the B40 group, and an up to a 2% tax rise for the T20 group. Taxation revenue will become a crucial issue for future governments, if reform is not undertaken.

The budget fell well short of the income safety net promised by both Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional before the elections. The social assistance allocation of RM8 billion to cover the needs of 8.7 million people will amount to RM920 per person per annum.

What has been dismissed as “paltry, one-off handouts” by a senior trade union official as opposed to a holistic approach to rectifying the fundamental issue of low wages continues to hold back the B40 and M40 income population.

Not exciting for SMEs

Assistance to SMEs will largely be in loans, and, with priority to developing automation, may run into delivery problems. Government criteria may be too tight, making many SMEs ineligible. The funds allocated for automation and digitalisation may not all be taken up due to most SMEs being only “hand to mouth” operations and not able to match grants.

Tax incentives will be of little use to SMEs which have not been able to make profits and are technically insolvent. There is a risk that the Khazanah Nasional and EPF innovative and high-growth start-up companies’ RM1.5 billion investment scheme will benefit only wealthy and connected companies as well as be largely expanded on consultancy services.

Food security

Bernas sharing 30% of net profits on rice imports, offering RM1 billion in loans and tax incentives, is not going to assist in enhancing food production. Technological grants for private investments may not be fully taken up by farming enterprises or may end up with sham politically connected companies.

Little is being done to lower the cost of production through decreasing input duties on farm inputs. There are still APs in place on many food items, which is contributing to artificially high costs.

The key forgotten reform

A special task force to reform government agencies is a small step in the right direction for enhancing the efficiency of the government. This should be expanded to a full study of the government, from ministries down to agencies, to determine where bloated staffing levels and inefficiencies exist and where necessary action can be taken to the right size before the next budget.

One interesting aspect of this budget is that the finance ministry had its allocation of RM29.87 billion raised to RM67.24 billion, a rise of 125.1%. This is a massive increase, enhancing the power of the finance ministry over the government.

The government has forecast RM58.6 billion in subsidy payments for 2023. Many of these subsidies, such as the RM1.8 billion for rice farmers, will continue to ensure the padi industry remains inefficient. Two hundred ringgit to be paid to youths between 18 and 20 will just be wasted and not assist these people to empower themselves.

CLGs offering 35,000 new job opportunities to youth, TVET graduates, veterans and other vulnerable groups is just going to add to the inefficiencies of these organisations. This new laundry list of giveaways may provide short-term political gain to buy the new government time but the economic returns are largely illusive.

The prime minister had promised to share “the real facts” rather than opting for “captivating” figures to accurately present the state of the nation. The budget presentation was a missed opportunity. - FMT

Ramesh Chander is a former chief statistician of Malaysia and a senior statistical adviser at the World Bank in Washington D.C.

Lim Teck Ghee is a former senior official with the United Nations and the World Bank.

Murray Hunter is an independent researcher and former professor with the Prince of Songkla University and Universiti Malaysia Perlis.

The views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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