NEVER in the history of Malaysia have so many goodies been offered to its citizens by both sides of the political divide in exchange for their support in the coming general election. On Pakatan Rakyat's (PR) side, especially in DAP-led Penang, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng proudly announced in the latest edition of the state's periodical, Buletin Mutiara, that "the state government has been giving out cash rewards under various programmes to appreciate the courage of Penangites in choosing a graft-free government in the 2008 general election".
These programmes included the senior citizens appreciation programme (SCAP); the single mother and disabled person programme (SMDPP) and the golden students programme (GSP), under which each eligible recipient receives RM100 annually. Adult recipients are required to be registered voters as a pre-condition for their eligibility. So far, some RM27.1 million has been paid to 135,220 registered senior citizens under SCAP.
Local residents aged 60 and above, single mothers, disabled persons, pupils in standards one and four, and students in forms one and four are eligible for cash rewards under their respective programmes. A RM1,000 one-off cash aid is also given to the beneficiaries of senior citizens, single mothers and disabled persons upon their demise.
Meanwhile, under the Golden Child Programme (GCP), the state gives out a one-off RM200 cash reward to each baby born to local residents. These populist measures have become one of the major selling points of the so-called "PR's success story". On the other side, the Barisan Nasional (BN)-ruled federal government has rolled out its own cash aid initiatives. Under the 1Malaysia People's Aid (BR1M) programme, a sum of RM500 was paid to every household that earned less than RM3,000 a month. A total of RM1.92 billion had been distributed to 3.8 million households in the country up to March 1.
The federal government also allocated as much as RM260 million to implement the 1Malaysia Book Aid (BB1M) initiative by distributing a RM200 book voucher to around 1.3 million students. The BR1M and BB1M are part of the government's financial aid package to help reduce the people's burden of the rising cost of living.
Needless to say, these cash aid programmes are extremely popular among the rakyat. So much so that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was recently quoted as saying to be "looking into a proposal to make a second payment of BR1M". That is not all. PR has even upped the ante by promising to scrap the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN), which would leave a whopping RM23 billion hole in our national finances. With a stroke of the pen, thousands of past and present graduates would be free from repaying their education loan funded by taxpayers' money.
Not to be outdone, BN continues to come up with other incentives, and announced a RM520 tyre subsidy voucher for two years for taxi drivers to help ease their burden. This is part of the newly launched Teksi Rakyat 1Malaysia (TR1Ma) programme, with RM34.84 million worth of financial aid expected to benefit 67,000 taxi drivers nationwide.
That is what we fear most about populism. What initially started out as one-off or ad hoc cash-aid measures to win the election, might eventually end up as a fixture in our national annual budget. No wonder many now worry that the whole battle to win over the hearts and minds of the rakyat is fast descending into a mindless competition of putting cash into the pockets of the rakyat.
Worse still is that, not unlike subsidies, these cash-aid measures once entrenched would be an uphill battle to rationalise them, let alone removing them altogether later. For sure, this could spell disaster for our national finances in the near future. And who could fault them for having such legitimate concerns? Yet, this need not necessarily be the case. Since it seems that based on their respective New Economic Model and Common Policy Platform or Buku Jingga, both BN and PR have reached a consensus on the dire need for a social safety net for the bottom 40% of households in our society in confronting the global economic uncertainty, they should focus on offering ideas or policies for constructing a comprehensive and sustainable social safety net model for Malaysia, instead of competing in dishing out goodies.
For instance, no one can deny that the PTPTN is in need of a complete overhaul. But is its abolishment the only solution? Or could there be better alternative ideas to fix or improve the national higher education financing system?
Similarly, as correctly pointed out by Najib, the present taxi hire-purchase system is akin to "modern slavery", and his administration is determined to fix it by providing taxi drivers with individual taxi permits. In this regard, it would be interesting to hear what PR has to offer to solve the problem.
Another example would be the right to shelter. Providing basic, sufficient and affordable housing for people on low incomes, particularly in urban areas, is an essential component of any social safety net model. The government has since launched an ambitious new housing programme called "the People's Housing Programme-National Economic Action Council and Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) Public Housing Scheme" to tackle this tricky problem.
But the question one should ask is whether this Employees Provident Fund (EPF)-funded home ownership scheme is the correct prescription to alleviate the ever critical perennial housing problem faced by the urban poor. Would it make more economic sense to roll out a more sustainable, comprehensive and well-managed social housing programme with subsidised rents for people with low incomes? Apart from the usual political rhetoric, the rakyat would be most keen to know the alternative policy solutions proposed by PR on this aspect.
However, the rakyat are all too familiar with promises made by politicians on both sides of the political divide. More often than not, their promises look long and impressive on paper, but short and disappointing in actual delivery. This time around, we should not simply buy into whatever electoral promises made by them.
We should hold them accountable for whatever ideas or policies they propose. Not only must they present their ideas and plans, they must also show us details of how they will fund their plans and convince us that their plans are workable and affordable. That is the difference between policies that are responsible and spending pledges that are simplistic and opportunistic.
After all, isn't this the reason we put in place a two-party system in the 2008 general election? We want both political coalitions competing against each other with concrete and workable ideas, and policies that would benefit this nation as a whole eventually. Definitely the last thing that we want to see would be this nation being ruined by the mindless and irresponsible goodies-dishing game.
Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. Opinions expressed in this article are the writer's personal views. This story appeared in The Edge on July 16, 2012.