With Polls Nearing, Malaysia Hands Out $1 Billion-Plus to Its Poor

Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
180301-my-brim1000.jpg Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during a gathering of youth leaders at the Malaysia International and Exhibition Center in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 28, 2018.

Updated at 7:45 a.m. ET on 2018-03-18

Malaysia has started distributing about U.S. $1.6 billion to millions of low-income citizens as part of a government plan to spur economic growth, but critics slammed the move as vote-buying ahead of a general election that could come within months.

Seven million eligible Malaysians began receiving the first batch of payments Monday, with recipients taking home up to 1,200 ringgit (U.S. $306) this year, a big jump from 500 ringgit (U.S. $127) when the scheme was first launched in 2012.

The handouts are part of a proposed 2018 spending plan of 280 billion ringgit (U.S. $71.6 billion) unveiled by Prime Minister Najib Razak in October, when he announced the country’s largest-ever annual budget.

The government earlier described the handouts as a remedial effort to help lower-income citizens, including palm oil farmers, offset a higher cost of living that followed higher global oil prices and a weaker local currency. Officials had explained that the handouts would also have a multiplier effect, as people would use the money they had received to buy goods and help stimulate the country’s economy.

But Rafizi Ramli, vice-president of the opposition People’s Justice Party and a member of parliament, questioned why Najib decided to offer handouts to the public rather than offer subsidies.

“Instead of easing the livelihood cost, BR1M instead becomes a treat for the people – generally from the low-income bracket – to go out for a one-time dining,” he told the Malaysian daily Sinar Harian last month.

Rafizi was referring to the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia or 1Malaysia People’s Aid, known locally as BR1M, which Najib started in 2012.

Opposition struggles to build united front

The dishing out of cash comes as Najib faces his toughest electoral test, which he could still survive, since becoming prime minister in 2009, according to political analysts. He can expect a stiff challenge from an opposition spearheaded by two former government leaders, ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his jailed former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

Under Malaysia’s constitution, a general election must take place every five years, and the next one is required before August this year.

The opposition came close to unseating Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition in the 2013 election, but has since struggled to put up a united front to challenge the prime minister in the next general election.

The 2018 increase in handouts to more than 6 billion ringgit, compared with 2.6 billion ringgit six years ago, is being criticized by opposition lawmakers.

This week, Najib fired back at his critics who alleged that the payout was a form of vote- buying in the nation with a population of 32 million.

“This targeted subsidy is better than a blanket subsidy that can have a lot of leakages,” Najib said before an estimated 2,000 handout recipients.

Economist Hoo Ke Ping, in an interview with BenarNews, dismissed assertions that handout recipients would automatically vote for Najib’s coalition. He cited results from the previous general election, which was held a year after BR1M was first introduced.

“Barisan Nasional failed to get any substantial votes from the Chinese community despite there being Chinese people of low income who were recipients of the handouts,” he said, referring to one of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities.

The handout program, he said, was necessary because low-income citizens “really need it to supplement their livelihood.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong total for proposed 2018 spending plan.

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