By Dr Mohamad Shamsuri Juhari

Ever since the Budget 2013 was announced on 25 February, the public’s reactions can be pegged to various positions situated between two extremes. Many, including members of the Opposition, welcome the many handouts that it has set aside for and felt that the government is finally shedding its pragmatic and ‘unfeeling’ façade, opting instead for a more caring and nurturing side. Others, such as leaders of social welfare organisations, see the Budget as a short-thinking populist move by the ruling government, meant to win back supporters. In the eyes of this group of individuals, the increased subsidies and handouts will lead to nothing more than ‘welfarism’ and ‘social norming’ – a phenomenon where government help is taken for granted and citizens try as much as they can to ‘milk’ the system, causing a perennial drain on the economy. According to these critics, this marks a beginning of the nation’s slow road to its eventual demise.

Personally, judging by the depth and breadth of the Budget’s financial assistance packages, I lean more towards the opinion that the state is relinquishing its sternly utilitarian stance.  It’s Wage Credit Scheme and Workfare Income Supplement, for instance, are meant to translate into higher salaries and payout for those in the lower income group. Bigger budget allocations given in the area of healthcare means lesser out-of-pocket costs and greater coverage through the use of Medifund and Medisave. There is also a greater awareness on the needs of the elderly as reflected by aid programmes such as the Mobility Fund, which allows qualified seniors the opportunity to purchase items such as motorised wheelchairs.

In the area of education, the Budget allows for a doubling of the government’s spending on the preschool sector. This suggests an increase in the number of preschools, as well as better quality teachers. Not only will this imply a reduction in the financial burden of parents with young preschool-going children, it will also make it more attractive for housewives to get back into the workforce knowing that their young dependents will be well taken care of.

With only 25& of the Malay community belonging to the category of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) – as compared to the other ethnic groups with more than double this figure – the Malays are unfortunately overrepresented in low-paying jobs. The Budget’s financial assistance packages, aimed at achieving some form of social equity for those with marginal incomes, will thus places these individuals in a better position to move ahead in life.

Whilst there are financial support programmes which aim to promote inclusivity, I feel that more funds should also be put into programmes that are preventive in nature. For instance, instead of relying on the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP), a watchdog agency with no enforcement powers, the government should put into effect anti-discrimination laws to regulate employment practices in the country. It is also time for the authorities to set aside a budget to establish institutions of oversight such as an ‘Equal Opportunity Bureau’ to prevent abuse by employers.

Only then, can this year’s budget be said to be really meaningful.

Dr Mohamad Shamsuri Juhari is the Centre Director of the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in the article are his own. 

This commentary was also published in AMPlified, Apr-Jun 2013, Issue 18.

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