A meaningful and thoughtful Budget 2021

The RM322.5b budget is a reminder that Malaysia we are fighting for has a place for everyone, including those on the margins


I GREW up listening to Whitney Houston, watching American movies and reading American classics.

Living in the Midwest, where my parents were studying, made American Dream so believable that I wanted to be like Americans. In contrast, when I got there in Spring 2016, I saw brilliant American students wanting to find meaning in life by helping others in the developing world.

Once, I fell sick and sought treatment at Harvard University Health Services which was possible thanks to my student ID. Otherwise, I had to rely on a private health insurance since America does not have a universal healthcare, unlike Malaysia. From that point forward, healthcare becomes my strongest reasoning to prove how Malaysia cares greatly for its people. Health, before wealth.

By this time, I still listen to Whitney Houston with additional Siti Nurhaliza and her contemporaries in my playlist, watch local dramas and movies besides P Ramlee’s, and read diligently about Malaysia, especially the annual budget speech. Let me applaud the government’s commitment in expanding policy spheres of Budget 2021 to be more diverse and inclusive.

In addition to helping poor households, persons with disabilities, the elderly, chronically ill patients, B40 (bottom 40%), M40 (middle 40%) and the Orang Asli, I am thankful for the allocations of RM90 million for pneumococcal vaccine programme for children and RM24 million to address mental health issues.

Now is the apt time to elevate mental health into the mainstream given the severity of emotional stress, anxiety and depression affecting both men and women, old and young.

The World Health Organisation conducted a survey from June to August 2020 to evaluate how the provision of mental services has changed because of Covid-19 and discovered a disruption or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide, while the demand for mental health has increased because of the devastating impacts of Covid-19.

Lives become edgier due to the skyrocketing anxieties emanating from retrenchments and loss of income, the fear of poor employment opportunities, the emotional stress of navigating relationships strained by distance and proximity, the physical and emotional abuse, and the loneliness of self-isolation.

We are not only fighting Covid-19, but also racing against destitution, bereavement and hopelessness so as not to consume us gravely. Some resorted to alcohol, drugs, insomnia and anxiety. Sadly, some gave up completely and committed suicide.

Along with a focus on mental health is the critical need to strengthen Malaysia’s social security protection. The lessons, criticisms and gaps noted in the way we handle Covid-19 is a good starting point.

The government must seriously consolidate existing fragmented social protection policies, programmes and activities into a coherent, effective and impactful system that is able to intervene and support Malaysians at the different stages of vulnerability: Infants, children, women, single mothers, disabled, jobless, terminally ill and elderly.

There remains Malaysians with limited access to healthcare, living wage, decent livelihood, transportation, technology and inequity within the education system that render them less competitive than peers who have it.

The Malaysia Wellbeing Report 2014 defines wellbeing as the physical, social and economic benefits that contribute to the improvement in the quality of life and satisfaction of an individual, family and the community.

Social wellbeing comprises housing, leisure, governance, public safety, social participation, culture, health, environment and family. Countries that have reduced poverty and improved living conditions have developed comprehensive social protection systems for its population.

Social protection will not only support growth and transition from destitution and vulnerability, but further promote a society’s wellbeing at large. It provides an assurance that when we fall on hard times, the system will embrace us tightly and help absorb shocks, while reminding us that we are loved even when we are at our lowest of low.

In June 2020, Tok Pa (Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed) announced the reactivation of Malaysia Social Protection Council (MySPC) with immediate effect focusing on social assistance, social insurance, labour and data market intervention, and governance.

MySPC aims to improve the social security of the people at every stage of their life, while extending the coverage of social protection to every Malaysian and ensuring that no one is left behind as per our commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Some RM322.5 billion budgeted for 2021 is the biggest in modern peacetime. It is telling of the unprecedented time we live in 2020, surviving an existential crisis that requires targeted, inclusive and compassionate responses to lift each other up to the other side of our next normal. It is also a reminder that Malaysia we are fighting for has a place for everyone, including those on the margins.

I trust our 1.6 million strong civil service will deliver efficiently on both the operational and development policies and programmes for 2021 and beyond.

The expansive involvement of parties in Budget 2021 also means that we must avoid spending time and energy fighting each other, except those who do that for a living.

I hope that 2021 onwards will be the recovery years for the many, and not just a few. Budget 2021 is about saving lives as much as it is about ensuring people live well.

Whether you are a CEO, civil servant or delivery riders, your wellbeing is of utmost importance and second to none. I look forward to the rolling-out of Malaysia’s national social protection policy soonest, so we can champion this cause together because #kitajagakita.

Nur Ayuni Zainal Abidin

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.