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Malaysian Opposition: Won’t Approve Budget Without More COVID-19 Social Protections

Hadi Azmi and Muzliza Mustafa
Kuala Lumpur
2020-11-09
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Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim takes a question during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 23, 2020.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim takes a question during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 23, 2020.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

The opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance won’t vote for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s 2021 budget unless he amends it to increase social protections for vulnerable people until the end of the coronavirus pandemic, coalition leader Anwar Ibrahim told parliament Monday.

Lawmakers on Monday began debating the record 322.5 billion ringgit (U.S. $78.1 billion) spending plan, which was introduced in parliament on Friday. Its passage is seen as crucial for Muhyiddin’s political survival because a parliamentary defeat of his first proposed legislation as PM would be akin to a no-confidence vote in his unelected government, which is clinging to a razor-thin majority.

“I stress here that we are asked to support it under the assumption that this is a COVID-19 budget, but my view is that we will only support it if it is truly a COVID-19 budget. Unless this budget 2021 truly serves to help the people, we are not going to support it,” Anwar said.

“I stress here that I do not want there to be a simple assumption,” the opposition leader said as debating got under way.

He was referring to the assumption that his opposition alliance would approve the budget.

“The time is different now. The government and the PM and Finance Minister know there is no certainty that the budget in its current form – if not amended to help the people like we demanded – will be approved easily,” Anwar said as debating got under way.

Anwar also said the budget didn’t fully reflect his Pakatan coalition’s six demands for it, including an extension of a moratorium on loan repayment and the continuation of a wage subsidy until the end of March 2021.

The king, who had appointed Muhyiddin as prime minister this past March, emphasized last month that the new budget was crucial in addressing the pandemic and revitalizing the economy.

“While we are leaning towards approving this budget, we do not want to compromise on the matter of emolument and frontliner salaries. Whether we approve or reject this budget, we will make sure there is an immediate plan to ensure that it will not burden the people, especially the civil servants, government officers and also frontline workers.”

The 2021 budget earmarks 17 billion ringgit ($4.1 billion) to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming year.

Muhyiddin needs a simple majority of 112 of 222 MPs to approve the budget to avoid a situation similar to losing a no-confidence vote.

Pakatan Harapan currently has 91 of its lawmakers in parliament but, in September, Anwar declared that more than 120 lawmakers were backed a bid by him to form a new government.

The ruling coalition’s parties have 113 MPs and while many of them, including from the anchor United Malays National Organization (UMNO), had jointly said in recent weeks that they would support the government, there have been rumblings of discontent in in the alliance since September.

The leader of UMNO, which has 39 MPs, also said recently that the party wanted a snap election once COVID-19 was under control.

And a move last month by Muhyiddin to get the king’s assent to declare an emergency – a request that was denied – did not endear the prime minister to some members of UMNO either.

‘A blank check’

Before the budget was presented, UMNO had urged Muhyiddin to include a provision in the budget to allow private sector employees to withdraw 10,000 ringgit (U.S. $2,433) from their compulsory retirement fund.

In unveiling the spending plan on Friday, the government said the proposed budget would allow a monthly withdrawal of 6,000 ringgit, divided equally over 12 months, from one of two accounts private sector employees generally have, to assist those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

In upcoming debates on the budget, UMNO lawmakers should discuss five issues, including the provident fund withdrawal limit as well as the loan repayment moratorium extension, the head of UMNO’s youth wing, Asyraf Wajdi Dasuki, said in a Facebook post on Sunday.

Muhyiddin needs to iron things out with its main ally UMNO, Tunku Mohar Mokhtar of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, told BenarNews on Monday.

“UMNO also has its own demands. This makes it a very difficult situation for the current government. Evidently it didn’t consult the other parties to resolve the outstanding issues before presenting the budget,” Mokhtar said.

“The most pertinent issue is getting UMNO to support it because in Malaysia’s party system, as in other systems, [only] the opposition parties are expected to oppose the government’s motion.”

When Anwar said in parliament that his coalition would make sure that government officers and frontline workers were not burdened, he was implying he would do that if he became prime minister after proving to the king that he has majority support, Mokhtar said.

“Anwar suggested that Pakatan was open to supporting the budget, but not giving [Muhyiddin] a blank check. At the same time, he’s suggesting that if the budget isn’t approved, he [and Pakatan] will ensure the continuity of emoluments to civil servants and frontliners immediately,” Moktar said.

“He’s assuring that there won’t be a government shutdown,” the analyst added. “He’s implying that if he takes over the government, he will immediately resolve the public service emoluments issue.”

Still, Mokhtar said the budget may eventually be passed if some of Anwar’s demands are met.

Late on Monday night, Muhyiddin chaired a meeting of his coalition members, but it wasn’t immediately known whether the budget was discussed at the meeting.

JASA allocation criticized

Meanwhile, some UMNO members as well as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized a budget provision, which they described as an inordinately large allocation for a government information agency known as the Special Affairs Department (JASA).

JASA, which falls under the Ministry of Information, was shuttered by the Pakatan Harapan government from 2018 to 2019, but was brought back under the 2021 Budget with an allocation of 85.5 million ringgit ($20.8 million), a substantial rise from the average yearly allocation of 23.5 million ringgit ($5.7 million) it received from 2011 to 2018.

The Multimedia and Communications Ministry said that JASA was reintroduced to help the government combat COVID-19 misinformation and fake news.

“JASA as a government agency functions to create a united nation state through the spread of accurate and legitimate information to the public,” said the ministry in justifying the budget for JASA in a statement on Sunday.

“The spread of fake news that threatens to destroy societal harmony is also among the big challenges faced by our society at large today.”

Puad Zarkashi, JASA’s former director and a member of UMNO’s Supreme Council, said the ministry was sugarcoating the job of JASA.

Communications Minister Saifuddin Abdullah “does not need to be defensive and say that JASA is not political towards the government,” Zarkashi said in a statement on Facebook on Monday.

“JASA’s purpose is political, don’t be apologetic about it. JASA does not need an allocation as big as 85.5 million ringgit unless it has other purposes. What’s important here is efficiency. The prime minister needs to answer in detail to the parliament,” Zarkashi said.

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