This looks like a real budget


The Pakatan Harapan government pulled a rabbit out of the hat in its inaugural national budget last Friday.

Despite constraints that included a depleted treasury, an overhanging Damocles sword of a national debt and the pesky pot-shots of a disgraced predecessor, Mr Lim Guan Eng has presented a budget that can work and bring Malaysia out of its shell-shocked financial and political climate post May 9.

In Malaysia, the national budget announcement is an annual national pastime. Nowhere else do people take interest in what the Finance Minister has to say on a Friday afternoon than here. By taking interest, I mean that most Malaysians await the budget for specific announcements that affect their particular slice of the economy.

Smokers and drinkers cringe every Budget Day, fatalistically resigned to more fiscal punishment for their sinful ways. Government servants look to the budget for bonus announcement and ordinary Joe’s like me, having been the part of the population usually ignored by past budgets, just want to see what about it that we can gripe about.

So it was that my usual kaki of experts (experts in every field, not just budget matters, every mamak has at least one group) who assemble at the Ali Maju Restoran most nights, was in session on the weekend to ruminate the Budget.

Given the concerns that the government had repeatedly warned that the national coffers have been raided to poverty, the assembled panel was surprised pleasantly that it is actually going to spend more than the previous year.

The difference is that the past Budgets seemed specifically a platform to win the ordinary people’s hearts, and past administrations were unabashedly labelling them as the “Peoples’ Budget” or even “Feel-good Budget”.

In comparison, Lim presented a budget with precious little candy, but ticked all the boxes for a prudent, responsible plan. Certainly one that is achievable and transparent. However, the candour and transparency is lost on nit-pickers such as the previous finance minister and members of his now-defunct Cabinet.

Najib, warned that people would not see the same amount of sweets that he had dished out during his tenure. However, given his propensity for assuming many things, both financial and personal, makes me shudder at how much of his previous budgets were based on assumptions and spurious numbers.

For this reason, I think anything Najib has to say needs to be taken with a bucket of salt.

Previous budgets weren’t actual blueprints for action, as much as promises that at the end of the day no one actually keeps track.

They were more like good intentions by the government meant to please the masses. This was amply illustrated when Lim reminded us that Malaysians have already paid RM7 billion towards 1Malaysia Development Bhd’s debts on the quiet, without its showing up anywhere in the books.

The current finance minister also showed some street smarts and silenced premature critics with the Budget’s inclusiveness. The proposed 2019 spending looks after sensitive areas such as education, Islamic matters, the Bumiputera lobby, and the biggest attention was given to the underprivileged, the B40 group.

Mara (Majlis Amanah Rakyat), for example, received RM2 billion to play with, despite its past dismal track record at using money under the previous management. Lim, who is not Muslim, even said there is plenty of allocation towards maintaining the message of Islam.

Our session could have gone deeper into the Budget but Aziz, one of our most opinionated member, had to leave to pick up his wife, likely because he couldn’t tell her to just take Grab, so we had to adjourn sine die.

“I tell you what, this looks like a real budget. I wish the government all the best,” he said as he departed for the airport.

  • ZB Othman is the editor-in-chief of The Malaysian Reserve