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Who to Vote For: A Dummies Guide to the Manifesto

The most anticipated general elections looms, yet we still hear utterances of political apathy, such as “politicians will be politicians” and “they are all the same”. For especially the young voting population which forms a majority of the 3.7 million new registered voters, this upcoming polls seem to be likened to the uphill task of “choosing the lesser evil”.  There is actually a significant difference between the two proposed manifesto and it will shape Malaysia differently.

Modern democracies like the US and the UK see very distinct ideologies engrained within their political systems. We have left wingers such as the labour party and the democrats, as well as pro-market and business-friendly republicans and conservatives. As a result, once a new alternate government is elected into power, we will see tremendous shifts in public policy and the country’s entire strategic direction. This is why for example that the slashing of more than 70 percent of the Carter-era taxation to below 40 percent when Reagan took over, did not come as too much of a surprise. What this gives us are actually very powerful sets of data points which allows for retrospective and empirical assessments of the different policies and ideologies.

It is a bit different here in Malaysia, where neither coalition seemed to be skewed towards either end of the political philosophy spectrum. But there is one thing for sure; that the rakyat’s concerns have unanimously evolved to cost of living and safety and security, as found by the latest Merdeka Centre census. While infliction of racial-supremacy and claims for legitimacy continue to be bandied about this election, significant imbalances, wealth and income inequality, and laggard wage growth has lead to a major shift in the Malaysian political direction; from race-based politicking of the post-Merdeka period, to a class-based discourse.

Rakyat-friendly welfare items thus became very important for either side of the political divide, making manifesto-drafting a very populist endeavor. In our quest to be an informed voter, we need go beyond this plethora of physical promises and start reading between the lines.

Malaysia’s Factsheet

Before dissecting a manifesto, it is always good to keep some facts at the back of our minds. Only then we can decide which manifesto will benefit all Malaysians holistically, especially in the longer term.

29.6 million people now inhabit Malaysia, the majority being the Bumiputera at 61% of the population, followed by the Chinese 24% and Indians 7%. Our GNI/capita stands at USD 9,970, with 12.7 million employed workers including legitimate 2 million foreign workers. Reports indicate that on top of that there is another 2 million illegal foreign workers residing in the country. By 2011, 827,000 Malaysians are working overseas, while talent initiatives by PEMANDU has brought home less than 2,000.

Our GDP, which is close to RM1 trillion, is made of 47% services, 41% industry and 12% agriculture.  National debt is at RM546 billion, which is 53% of GDP, mainly from domestic lenders. Our household debt to disposable income is among the highest in the world, surpassing that of the US at 140%, meaning for every RM1 taken home there’s RM1.40 worth of debt.

Welfare states and the average OECD nation contributes more than 20% of their GDP for social spending, largely on health and education, while Malaysia spends 4.1% on Education (ranking her 101) and 4.4% on Healthcare (ranking her 156 in the world). Malaysia also ranks among the largest disparity gap in Asia between the rich and poor.

Malaysia’s forecasted revenue for 2013 stands at RM208.6 billion, while RM201.9 billion and RM49.7 billion of operating expenditure and development expenditure are expected. Fiscal deficit is 4% of GDP.

Transparency International reported that there is RM28 billion of money lost to corruption every year and the Asian Wall Journal placed Malaysia highest in the cost of doing business perception.

Bearing all this in mind, which manifesto then is sustainable and will further grow or even sustain our pockets?

2008 – 2013 Report Card

To begin, one must critically evaluate the proven track record between both contesting parties. Let’s benchmark using the 2008 Manifesto.  In essence, there have been promises kept by BN but it will be quite tricky to measure. Some of the highlighted promises are general, vague and difficult to quantify.

There are straightforward cases like the five economic corridors, which no longer receives the spotlight under the new premiership. Then, there’s the question; if Muhyiddin were to take over the helm later, will the Manifesto’s promises be continued?

What about GST? PEMANDU has come out clearly to advocate for GST and despite no mention were made in the BN manifesto, it is touted to be very much in the plan. PR meanwhile recognizes that the income profile of majority Malaysians is still unready to stomach GST.

BN came short of the promised 2 million new employments in its 2008 manifesto. Less than 1 million new jobs were created over the past 5 years. Corruption and dubious manslaughter cases still persisted; a number of them made known to public such as the PKFZ scandal, NFC cow and condominium fiasco, Scorpene, diamond rings, Ahmad Sarbani, too many to name here. One may argue that cleaner and transparent government alone would already bring about material returns.

Unbearable rise in the cost of living and price of goods still continues. Whereas there was a promise made to reduce the fiscal deficit, the BN government has been overspending for the past 15 years when in power. To compare with PR’s performance, the Auditor General reported that the Pakatan-led states were the best financially managed states with Penang registering 95% reduction in debt and 47% increase in revenue. Selangor deposited RM1.2 billion, its highest record in 28 years. Kelantan too boasted a 58% surge in the amount of consolidated funds.

Manifesto: Barisan Nasional (BN) versus Pakatan Rakyat (PR)

The BN Manifesto is largely business as usual without any fundamental or structural changes to how things are executed in Malaysia. It is the same things albeit more attractive goodies and cash handout! The Manifesto offers promises in 17 categories with over 150 very comprehensive promises. Question is, are they sustainable? Can they be maintained or are they purely election winning strategies? These are questions that needed to be asked.

More apparently is that the BN manifesto lacks the spirit of reform that is badly needed, such as the abolishment of lucrative IPP compensation methods and cessation concessions with ridiculously long contractual terms to the politically affiliated. There was no mention on the abolishment of tolls (which will result in RM5 billion per year returning to the people’s pockets) to reduce cost of living, no mention of structural reforms to foreign workers policy. Neither were there proposals to clamp down on cronyism, transparent contract awarding and revisit monopolistic corporate structures that allow for the exploitation of end customers.

In education, BN is proposing the same protectionist policies for the vernacular schools, except that different format schools such as religious, missionary and special needs schools are included. Rather out worldly, it also promises to increase the education standards to the top three ranked in the world, where we now stand in the bottom third. According to the National Education Blueprint 2013- 2025, 15% of our schools lack access to clean water. On top of that, 20% have inadequate science labs and 27% have inadequate computer labs. This needs addressing. PR on the other hand proposes 5 new technical universities and 25 new vocational schools.

In its development and housing proposals, BN promised 1.0 million houses in the span of five years, compared to the rather manageable and more realistic target of 125,000 by the PR government. This is a repeat of Manifesto 2008.

A simple analysis indicates a yearly reduction of roughly RM1,500 in the cost of living if  the BN Manifesto is executed; by means of BR1M and other handouts. If the PR Manifesto were to be executed instead, RM5,500 will effectively be reduced. How is this proposed to be achieved by PR? It is via lower fuel prices, electricity, water, lower car prices, free education, more affordable housing, abolishing anti-competitive tolls and monopolies as well as the imposition of a minimum wage of RM1,100 via gradual and steady reduction of independence on foreign labour.

For economic growth, BN has promised 5.3% and the achievement of high income nation before 2020 while PR promised 7% yearly growth.

The difference between the two is subtle yet most defining. Changes will not come from seemingly transformative patchwork of myopic polices that simply add-on to existing processes. It needs political will to revamp underlying inefficiencies and leakages within the systems in place. 1.0 million new affordable housing is noble but is it achievable and who will be the contractors? What are the procurement policies with regards to this massive scale of projects? What kind of incentive systems are in place within the contractors, to ensure the targeted rakyat groups receive quality affordable housing? Will there be exceptions in the balloting and allocation of those houses?

Another example is the reduced car prices and fuel subsidy rationalization, BN proposed to reduce car prices by 20- 30% in gradual stages. Yet, the issue at hand is bigger than this. There is no mention of ways to tackle crony-favouring practices in the awarding and subsequent trading of APs?  car price reduction truly in the Meanwhile, the PR addresses this specifically by proposing the reduction of excise duty and auction off APs. BN did not even touch on reducing petrol price, while PR despite questioned as being unsustainable promises a reduction of 40 cents to pump petrol prices, to be financed by removing gas subsidy to the IPPs.

So Who Should We Vote For?

First, consider the baseline, which is the starting point that the manifesto will have to work from. Identifying needs such as tackling inequalities, quality of education and cost of living, consider then for yourself if what we need are core structural changes backed by political will to ensure sustained outcomes however expensive it may seem, or would we rather temporary fixes, which too are expensive, but in no way guarantee that the systems in place will be changed to make way for fresh new policies.

You might not agree with everything BN or PR proposes, but they are at the end of the day political manifestos to win our votes. It is only fair to go through the manifestos in its entirety and not in piece meals limiting ourselves to personal sentiments, and only what our hearts and pockets desires.

If one is contented with one’s current situation, afraid of change and is happy to be considered qualified for welfare aids like BR1M angpows, by all means your vote should be for BN. However, if you are willing to step up for the sake of your livelihood and that of your children in hopes for structural and fundamental changes within a cleaner government, a vote for PR might be your salvation. Many already are excited by the prospects of PR, as showcased in the past 5 short years in the four Pakatan-led states.

Albert Einstein famously said that, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And you will be insane to hope for a change if you vote for status quo.

Your vote counts! “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” – Abraham Lincoln

* Datas and figures are derived from EPU, DOSM, HIS 2009, HDR 2011, World databank and BNM. For details, please refer to BLINDSPOT (www.facebook.com/blindspot.msia)

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