The bounteous taking before generous giving
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 22 Feb 2013
DRIVING southward along the PLUS highway on my return to the Klang Valley, my eyes were treated to a feast of candy advertisements.
Every few minutes, just as I was getting bored with the scenery, a billboard would surface to dispel the fatigue and provide a shot of amusement.
Each was of course a passing glimpse, but there were so many, they entertained and sustained the long journey: BB1M, KR1M, BR1M...
There is a national sale of things bearing the 1Malaysia logo. But this is an odd case.
Most of the products have been and/or will be given away.
And the recipients are invited to pay back not with ringgit notes, but election votes.
Some teasers: 1Azam, generating economic opportunities for the poor, and TUKAR, offering funding and modernising assistance to sundry shops.
These ventures are potentially valuable and productive, but being long-term in scope and recently launched, it is a bit too early to assess their impact.
Anyway, in relative terms, the number of people who have benefited from these programmes and who ought to be grateful and indebted is small.
Hence, the billboards flashed just once or twice.
Up the scale of importance, youngsters and students are reminded of BB1M (Baucer Buku 1Malaysia). RM200 was first made available to all tertiary-level students to buy books a year ago, right now RM250 is for the taking.
Well, who could be against money for reading material? But I’m not sure if this is the most effective and sustainable method to spur book ownership and a culture of reading.
We could have embarked on an expansion of book markets on campus, for students to resell books and recover some of the cost, and to buy used books on a mass scale. New books would face more price competition.
Students may be encouraged to both buy and value books, since it was paid with their own money and they will be choosing which ones to sell and which to keep. But giving out vouchers, to the tune of RM300 million plus a year, is good for popularity.
So is selling basic goods cheaply. With inflation hitting pockets and minds, KR1M (Kedai Rakyat 1Malaysia) came along, offering up a chain of government-blessed budget marts.
I’m sure some are frequenting the outlets and saving money. But with only 85 stores nationwide, the vast majority of the population remains unreached by the network – even after the 90 new ones approved for 2013, mostly in Sabah and Sarawak.
Addressing the rakyat’s cost of living concerns will require tackling harder and deeper problems, including monopolies in supply chains (such as rice distribution, sugar) and fruitlessly high prices of cars and motor vehicles and highway toll.
The Najib administration’s loudest answer to these woes, though, is Bantuan Rakyat (BR1M), clearly the darling of the 1Malaysia pageant.
In 2012, about RM2 billion was disbursed to 4.2 million households.
On offer this year: RM500 for households earning below RM3,000 and RM250 for individuals earning below RM2,000, with seven million recipients and close to RM3 billion to be dished out.
We should not belittle the genuine relief and happiness of BR1M beneficiaries. For a household earning RM1,000 a month, RM500 is a welcome bonus.
But we must not ignore how these handouts belittle the mature and democratic social protection system, and equitable and productive means of distribution, that we demand our best effort.
While lavishly dispensing BR1M, the federal government is resistant or tepid toward more purposeful and targeted assistance, like unemployment insurance and conditional transfers, especially cash for poor families with school kids.
We provide a meagre RM100 for each primary and secondary pupil, when the livelihood needs of large poor families presents an exceptionally legitimate and constructive case for transferring public funds.
In the interest of national development, a reallocation away from BR1M toward schooling assistance is warranted.
But the timing of the disbursement says it all. As you read, BR1M money is being channeled to thousands of folks, then millions, and now and again a politician hints that more of such help could be on the way, if voters help BN on election day.
I wonder if KL to Penang PLUS highway commuters gazing at the promotional signs of BR1M’s RM500 have realised that one month’s instalment out on a six-year car loan can swallow it all.
Before the generous giving there was bounteous taking.
For all the trumpeting of transformation, BN’s return to power is riding on transfer payments from public coffers to the “bottom 40 per cent”.
A big net, no doubt. Whether it lands a big catch, though, is the aching question.