By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
Many had wanted to start the New Year with a measure of optimism in spite of the many uncertainties and the still unresolved, and by now infamous, 1 MDB financial scandal only to recoil in horror over a last-minute pronouncement. A 20-sen hike in petrol price effective Sunday, January 1, 2017 destroyed what little joy was left in those who looked forward to a brighter New Year. No amount of fireworks that lit the midnight sky could enliven the depressed mood prevalent at that moment in time. Sensing the hopelessness of things I decided, against the wishes of my wife, to tuck in as soon as the din began to subside.
So what is this narrative indicative of? It is crystal clear that Year 2017, like many have predicted, will not be a bright and sunny one. Topping the list of public woes, besides the damning Goods and Services Tax (GST), rationalisation of subsidies and price hikes, is the ever shrinking ringgit that has gained a dubious distinction as the worst-performing currency in Asia. And to further aggravate the situation, news and photos that went viral on social media of the “first family” holidaying in the Gold Coast and Perth and jetting about without a care in the world, compounded the gloom.
Over in Ipoh a false-sense of bravado unfolded when eight youngsters, with enough testosterones in reserve, decided to scale an outcrop of Gunung Lang, where the whitish letters “IPOH” stands and posed for pictures. Their exploits, recorded on video, went viral and soon the whole country was abuzz with the news, prompting wannabes to do their own but less daring stunts. A couple of days later a lone wolf, wanting to outdo his compatriots, gingerly climbed the 150-foot unattended crane within the compound of the unfinished Ipoh Convention Centre, in between Syeun Hotel and Ipoh City Council, and uploaded his video on YouTube. And the rest is history.
The nine youths had their five minutes of fame as no sooner as they got back on firmer ground they were summoned by the Police. They were let off with a stern warning not to repeat. In spite of the many negative comments, I feel youthful zest should not be curtailed. We were young once. I must admit I was no angel myself.
The atmosphere in Kuala Lumpur, following May 13, 1969, was tense. The situation went on for a few years. One morning in early 1971 a group of us, in two cars and armed with machetes, wooden spears and two 9mm Brownie pistols (loaded with blanks), staged a mock fight in front of the Pudu bus station. People, fearing that a racial clash was in the offing, fled helter skelter. In the midst of the mayhem, we slipped away and watched the fun from afar. The police, realising that it was the action of some overzealous army officers from Wardieburn Camp, did not nab us or file a complaint with the Ministry of Defence. Had they done so we would have been court martialed and penalised. We were young then and doing foolish things was to be expected. Need I say more?
Prime Minister Najib wanting to assuage the rakyat’s fear of a shrinking ringgit expressed confidence that measures taken by Bank Negara would stabilise the local currency again. He pointed out that of 149 world currencies, 123 declined in value vis-à-vis the US dollar. “Three factors influenced the ringgit’s value namely, excessive speculation in offshore currency markets, fall of oil prices and the rise in US interest rates,” he insisted. But he said nothing about the much-touted “crisis of confidence” attributed to his management of the country’s finance.
Deputy Finance Minister, Datuk Othman Aziz was more optimistic. He agreed with most bankers that the ringgit would recover to a fair value of RM4.1 to a US dollar in the third quarter of 2017 (July to September). At the time of reporting the Greenback is trading at RM4.48 to a dollar. I don’t see the inevitable happening any sooner as the price of oil is falling. Iran is selling its oil reserves despite Opec’s assurance of a clampdown.
My prediction is simple – prices of goods and services will go up and no amount of assurances, subtle or otherwise, will halt the surge. With Chinese New Year around the corner the plight of the poor will be more pronounced. What we see today is a dual economy taking place similar to what happened in Indonesia during the economic downturn of the 1980s. The upper class spends without a care in the world while the working class wallows in sorrow due to their poor purchasing power. The absence of shoppers at the Gunung Rapat wet market is an indication.
Which made me wonder when I read the prime minister’s reminder to civil servants during his New Year Speech at Putrajaya recently that “they should not deny the rakyat their entitlements”. What entitlements?