By Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia-The 2023 Budget will be tabled, belatedly, on 24th February 2023. It was initially tabled in late October 2022 as is the normal practice.

But as Parliament was dissolved just a few days later, the budget tabled by then Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul, was not debated and voted on.

We in the PSM hope that the following 6 items will feature in the reworked budget that PMX will table as Finance Minister

1. An old age pension scheme of RM 500 per month for all those above 65 years of age who are not currently on government or Socso pensions. Such a scheme is urgently required as:

a. Though we do have the Employees Pension Fund (EPF), the cover it provides is neither comprehensive nor sufficient. At present, only about 7 million of the 20 million Malaysians between the ages of 19 and 60 are contributing to the EPF. Another third have EPF accounts but are no longer contributing monthly. The remaining third of the 19 – 60 years group do not have any EPF savings at all – housewives, farmers, fishermen, contract labourers, operators of micro businesses. Most do not have any savings for their old age.

b. According to the EPF itself, only 56 percent of the members aged 54 years have EPF savings of more than RM 50,000. This amount is far short of the sum needed to sustain them in their retired years. According to EPF, a member should have RM240,000 in EPF savings for him/her to be able to withdraw RM 1000 a month for as long as he/she lives.

c. The pandemic and the drop in income forced people to rely on their EPF savings to survive. A total of RM 145 billion was withdrawn from the EPF largely by those who had the lowest savings to start with. So the lower paid workers are the ones who have depleted EPF savings now.

This pension scheme will give immediate relief to around 1.7 million Malaysians in the senior citizen category and make their conditions of life so much better. This pension scheme will cost about RM10 billion per year at present, and it will be greatly appreciated by the public.

2. Socso contributions sponsored by the Federal Government to provide Invalidity Cover for all the women between the age of 18 and 60 in the country. If based on the minimum wage of RM1500 per month, this will come to RM 15.50 per person per month. It will work out to RM 1.2 billion per year to provide this cover for the 6.5 million women aged 19 – 60 who are eligible i.e. women who are not government servants or currently covered by Socso.

It is important that the government uses its database to initiate this scheme. Asking the women to initiate the process by making the first copayment is a non-starter. It might sound good on paper, but very few of the eligible women will come forward and make the initial payment.

3. Increase the allocation to the Ministry of Health to at least RM 44 billion, from the RM 33 billion allocation for 2022. This still does not make the 4 percent of GDP target that many health advocacy groups have been asking for – that would be RM 66 billion. We advocate RM 44 billion for 2023 because we believe that the Ministry of Health will need some time to develop the programs and the staffing requirements to be able to utilize the 4 percent of GDP allocation. But the plan should be to increase the health budget over the next 5 years to reach the 4 percent of GDP goal.

The above 3 items will lay the groundwork for a better, more comprehensive safety net for all Malaysians and will reduce the anxiety that many feel when they consider their postretirement future. In addition, the infusion of about RM 18 billion into the economy will expand the market for the micro and small businesses in Malaysia and lead to overall economic well-being for the B40 and M40.

4. A program for the urban low income earners: The government should create a fund of RM 2 billion per year to co-sponsor a program which mandates that local councils take over the upkeep and management of low cost flats throughout the country. Many of these are in a deplorable condition because the management committees are unable to collect enough maintenance fees to keep the premises clean, repair broken lifts, pay the electricity bills for lighting in the common areas, etc. As a result many low cost flats are unpleasant as well as unsafe for their residents. It would be a great disservice to the children and youth in these flats to allow the situation to fester.

5. A programme for the rural poor: There is no need for an additional allocation in this case. The government should ensure that there is transparency in the deployment of funds provided by the Ministry of Rural Development through the District Offices to maintain and upgrade public facilities as well as houses of residents in rural areas. That allocation is currently about RM 5 billion per year! That level of funding must be maintained for now, but it will go much further when the pilfering (by local politicians and the district office employees and their crony contractors) is reduced by requiring all the allocations and the specifications of the projects approved to be put up on online notice boards that the local population can access and monitor.

The government should also beef up the Biro Pengaduan Awam so that complaints from the villagers that the allocations are not reaching the target, are investigated speedily by teams from outside the State (and so relatively free of influence by the local elite).  Those who misuse funds meant for the rural poor should be charged in court.

6. A simple announcement that the Government has decided to withdraw from the CPTPP so as to carry out a proper review on the purported benefits of that economic agreement, would be the icing on the budgetary cake! Many economists agree that the CPTPP concedes too much to the wealthy multinationals and ties the hands of government at a time when the international situation requires that governments have the capacity to intervene decisively in the economy as and when required. The decision to step back and review the need for another Free Trade Agreement (FTA) when we are already committed to more than 15 bilateral and multilateral FTAs is a decision that Malaysians of varying hues will greatly appreciate.

The six programs / actions sketched out above will help reduce the economic stresses that the B40 and M40 are currently facing. These programs will also significantly allay fears of the people who didn’t vote PH in GE 15 that they will be neglected, marginalized or left behind under the new government. They will definitely help widen the political base of the PH regime and represent an important step in the building of a more inclusive Malaysia.

*Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj is the chairperson of PSM and former MP of Sungai Siput.*