By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
Year 2013 is about to come to a close. Before we welcome the New Year let us reflect upon what has occurred in our beloved state. Let us look at events, which I feel may have both positive and negative impacts on ordinary Perakeans, in general. When I mean ordinary Perakeans I refer to the Ahmads, Ah Chongs and Muthus and, possibly, the many foreigners who eke out an honest living without resorting to violence and deceit to make ends meet.
Has 2013 been bountiful or one of missed opportunities or let-downs?
Perak may be the proverbial land of milk and honey to Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Indians and a horde of other nationalities whose affiliation and loyalty we are unable to ascertain, unless probed. But that is not the issue here. What I am trying to highlight is whether Year 2013 has been a bountiful year for Perakeans, as being repeatedly and proudly claimed by our political masters; or has it been one of missed opportunities and let-downs. Let us make an honest assessment without alluding to the numerous too-good-to-be true forecasts and innuendoes made by our overbearing and often delusional leaders from both sides of the political divide.
Year 2013 started with so much anxiety as Malaysians were literally in a voting mood, believing that the much-anticipated General Election, the 13th since 1955, would be called anytime. The waiting game went on for the next five months until the Prime Minister finally chose May 8 as the D-Day, the day when Malaysians use the ballot boxes to pick a new government. The delay had caused many to suffer from election fatigue, and I was no exception.
The political debacle of February 6, 2009 when the state government changed hands from Pakatan Rakyat to Barisan Nasional was still fresh in Ipohites’ minds. It was no surprise that most went to the polling stations with a vengeance convinced that they could bring the much-touted change that had eluded them for over five decades. The Opposition, as expected, won the urban areas but lost the rural heartland where Malays predominate.
Outcome of General Elections
Some political heavyweights from the ruling coalition were made to eat humble pie. Among them were Umno’s Dato’ Hamidah Osman, Gerakan’s Acting President Dato’ Chan Ko Youn, MCA’s comeback kid, Dato’ Thong Fah Chong, former state assembly speaker R. Ganeson of MIC and current speaker SK Devamany also of MIC.
Democratic Action Party’s stalwarts, M. Kulasegeran, cousins Ngeh Koo Ham and Ngo Kor Meng and former Menteri Besar, Dato’ Seri Nizar Jamaluddin of PAS were returned with a larger majority.
Although Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote, it got to govern the state based on the controversial first-past-the-post electoral system where candidates with the highest number of votes are declared winners despite their winning numbers being inferior to their opponents contesting the same seats.
But over time Perakeans have managed to reconcile themselves to the inevitable and so did the majority of Ipohites. Whatever it is, Perakeans have to face reality, as nothing is permanent. Life has to go on and most moved on with the tide. “Better the devil you know than the angel you don’t,” said former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. He may have a point, as the policies of the Opposition are still vague and hazy.
Having accepted their fate, Perakeans moved on but with some trepidation. Most were bracing for the worse, as news of price hikes were making the rounds. It did come eventually. Price of RON 95 and diesel went up by 20 sen effective midnight Tuesday, September 2.
“It’s a subsidy rationalisation exercise aimed at reducing fiscal deficit providing a saving of RM1.1 billion for the Government,” said the Prime Minister. But what is RM1.1 billion when the Auditor-General’s Report 2012 revealed some very startling news. RM1.33 billion loss in Police assets and RM67 million spent by the Youth and Sports Ministry to host its 2012 Youth Day!
After petrol and diesel, the price of sugar came under the hammer. A cut in sugar subsidy caused the commodity to go up by 34 sen. Sugar is now sold at RM2.85 a kilogramme. There was, however, a funny side to this episode. The ruling coalition had to resort to damage control in the run-up to the Sg Limau bi-election when the Deputy Prime Minister said that raising the price of sugar would negate the spread of diabetes and had alluded to the late Menteri Besar of Kedah, Tan Sri Azizan Abdul Razak, as an example. The results of the bi-election did much to sober up the protagonists.
Goods and Services Tax
Goods and Services Tax (GST), a taboo subject before GE 13, featured prominently during Najib’s October Budget 2014 speech. The much-feared GST will be implemented in April 2015, as the Government needs the money to finance its developments and to maintain a ballooning civil service, which many have come to regard as ineffectual.
A 6 per cent quantum will be imposed on goods and services once the consumption tax is underway. The tax, being incremental in nature, will rise as goods and services pass hands. Therefore, the price of an item at the source may increase many folds before it is finally sold to the consumer. Such is the making of GST that its impact would only be felt when the time comes. Presently, much is left to conjecture.
Electricity Tariffs Up
Beginning January 1, 2014 tariff for electricity will rise by 4.99 sen per kWh for usage above 300kWh per month. Hard hit will be middle-income households in Perak as they may have to fork out anything between RM40 to RM60 extra per month. Commercial rates too will be revised from the present 41.01 sen per kWh to 47.92 sen per kWh while industrial rates will be adjusted by 5.21 sen capping at 36.15 sen per kWh. According to the Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water, Datuk Seri Maximus Ongkili, the increase in electricity tariff is to reduce energy subsidies. “It’s also to reflect market prices to ensure greater efficiency,” he added. But he said nothing about subsidies given to the 11 independent power plants operating in the country.
Assessment Rates Hike
There is little to cheer come 2014. A few days ago I received my annual assessment rate bill for my link-house in Bercham. It has gone up by RM10.80 sen. Rates for commercial and industrial buildings too have been revised without prior consultation with ratepayers.
When confronted with the cold facts during the recent sitting of the state assembly, Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri DiRaja Zambry Abd Kadir denied knowledge of a hike and had told opposition lawmakers to refer to Ipoh City Council instead. He could not have been so naïve as to claim that revision of assessment rates is the prerogative of local councils when the burden of responsibility lies squarely with the state government.
I do not expect hawkers and petty traders not to react to price increases, especially when prices of petrol, diesel, sugar and electricity go upwards. They are the most price-sensitive people on Mother Earth. What goes up will come down, so the saying goes. But when prices of goods and services go up they seldom come down.
My barometer to gauge spiralling prices and, to a lesser degree, inflation is my favourite mee goreng stall along Jalan Yang Kalsom. Early this year a plate of mee goreng at the stall cost RM3.80. It was RM4 a few months ago. Now it is priced at RM4.50. Prices of drinks too have gone up. A glass of fresh orange costs RM2 a few months back. Today it is RM2.50. Expect more surprises coming our way when the dreaded GST is in place.
At a time of rising costs and shrinking surplus, Malaysians are constantly reminded to tighten their belts while our leaders and their spouses think nothing of flying about in government jets at taxpayers’ expense.
Soon, toll rates will be raised making it a double whammy of sorts with GST in the lead. I cannot think of a more gloomy scenario than this. Call me a doomsayer if you wish, but that is one bitter pill we all have to swallow.
Despite these very grim prophecies there are many economic activities taking place in Ipoh and major towns in Perak. The mushrooming of star-rated and budget hotels is proof that the state is ticking and the MB’s claim that investments, by both foreigners and locals, are trickling in holds true.
What could be the reasons behind this boom? Confidence and political stability are the driving forces. However, too much confidence could result in overproduction, as evidenced by the many empty shop and office lots found all over the city. The glut, if left unchecked, could have a debilitating impact on the state’s economy.
Should the government intervene to halt the rot? Most are of the opinion that it should not. “Let market forces be the deciding factor,” said an academician.
Poor Foresight and Bad Planning
The government, however, should play its role as an active facilitator of economic developments. But of late some very disturbing news has leaked out which could make us the laughing stock of the region.
The much-publicised Sultan Azlan Shah Airport, which was upgraded to a tune of RM42 million will be a non-starter, as the runway is currently being upgraded. This has affected the operability of Flying Fox Airways, which was due to take off on its maiden Ipoh-Medan flight on December 13 but was instructed to postpone the date, possibly by four months, for safety reasons (see page 11 for the full story). So much money and effort have gone to waste leaving many feeling flabbergasted, frustrated and disgusted. This is one of the many pitfalls the state should avoid, as it creates a negative perception among investors.
The Amanjaya bus terminal in Jelapang has been touted as being the best in this part of the country. But the terminal’s locality and distance from downtown Ipoh makes it rather inaccessible to Ipohites. Again, good tax-payers’ money has gone down the drain due to poor foresight and bad planning.
One other ticking time-bomb is escalating household debts and income disparity. Although the malaise affects the whole nation, the fact that Perak has a sizeable middle-income population, the outcome may be less than favourable. The government’s promise of cash handouts will not lessen the problem.
The proliferation of high-rise condominiums in Ipoh, on the other hand, can be attributed to one man. Peter Chan, the developer of Haven Lakeside Residence in Tambun, has left an indelible imprint on the property market in Perak. Love or loathe the guy, Peter is here to stay.
In the meantime, I am joining the outgoing mayor, Dato’ Roshidi Hashim by taking a long deserving holiday in one remote corner of the world.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Looks like we all have to work harder to make ends meet. Do we have an option?