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Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng.

AS we glean from the 2019 Budget, we may discern that Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng had gone through various aspects of the economy with a fine-tooth comb.

Despite the grim picture he had painted of the debt-laden economy months earlier, especially with regard to the country’s mind-boggling indebtedness to the tune of one trillion ringgit, he did not upset the apple cart with punitive taxes or a business tougher environment, but offered a glimmer of hope for all sections of the population. 

Under the premise of “while we remove the fat, we must not cut our muscles”, Lim outlined the government’s precarious situation in balancing its socio-economic priorities with the wellbeing of the rakyat. In presenting the Pakatan Harapan government’s maiden socio-economic blueprint for the next one year, he had somewhat allayed fears on the mountain of debts that had spiralled out of control because of corruption and mismanagement. 

Citing new ground rules in managing the economy, especially in employing the zero-based budgeting approach to effect a more efficient budgetary system to meet the many challenges in the country, Lim also stressed the importance of leveraging the government’s assets and reviewing its taxation policies.

Like unlocking the value of its holdings in non-strategic assets and adopting an open tender system to get the best value out of the government’s assets as opposed to the previous approach of direct negotiations. 

While his detractors were quick to dismiss the PH budget as a carbon copy of previous years, Lim actually broke new ground when he announced the Airport Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), the first in the world, to improve facilities at various airports in the country.

Such an approach should make key airports in the country to be among the best in the region and lessen the financial burden on the government. If successful, there should be no reason why REITs cannot be used for the construction of hospitals and rail infrastructure in the country. 

Another refreshing approach was property crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending to make it less troublesome and more affordable for would-be first-time purchasers of houses.

Who would have thought that while the government is advocating improved fiscal responsibility and discipline, such bold innovativeness is also being introduced to break the mould or outmoded thinking of certain industries. 

While the RM100 and RM50 unlimited rail and bus travel passes under Prasarana Malaysia seemed like another payment system for travel, it actually broke new ground to incentivise public transport. It certainly takes the hassle out of travelling on buses or trains as seen in more developed countries, and helping the rakyat to better manage their transport costs. 

The kids’ glove approach in terms of the imposition of smaller penalties in the Special Voluntary Disclosure Programme on taxpayers who had not declared their taxes between now and June 30 next year, and the subsequent severe penalties after that date, are interesting.

It will certainly give food for thought for those who had escaped the attention of the tax authorities as the penalties could be as high as 300 per cent after the cut-off date! 

I especially applaud the zeroing-in on those in the gaming industry as it came with the full knowledge it has always been thriving in good or bad times! Should have taxed them more!  

The business community is certainly looking forward to exciting opportunities as the government introduces the aerospace hub in Subang, truck depot in Bukit Kayu Hitam, duty-free shops at Swettenham Pier, Penang, and free trade zone in Pulau Indah, Port Klang, as well as biodiesel from palm oil and rubber cup lumps as road-building material.

And not forgetting the entire island community in Pulau Pangkor, which will be turned into a duty-free island. 

While the government’s continued emphasis on key socio-economic sectors like education, healthcare, tourism, transport, communications as well as the bottom 40 per cent of the population as well as giving employment to ex-convicts is to be lauded, what the business community is extremely pleased about are the various initiatives by the government. Like not wanting to be a business that may crowd out the private sector. Or reviewing the 130 fiscal incentives from 30 government agencies involved in attracting investment.

Best of all is the announcement by Lim that he will jointly chair a committee together with International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Darrel Leiking to make Malaysia investor-friendly. Besides making Malaysia more attractive to investors, the approach will benefit the country immensely. It will certainly weed out unhealthy practices.

While Lim did say that “we are open for business”, he may not have had the time in his slightly more than two-hour speech in Parliament to say that “we are open for business in a more open and transparent way”. 

It’s all about having a Malaysia with better integrity and a more dynamic economy for the well-being of the rakyat. It’s about making Malaysia roar again as a “tiger economy”.

Datuk Yong Soo Heong is a business journalist and the former chief executive of national news agency Bernama

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