WHEN Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the 2020 Budget was akin to an election budget, he must have meant it in a good way — that despite money being tight, high national debts, and economic headwinds buffeting the global economy, he has managed to draw up an expansionary budget that should please the man in the street.
To be sure, democratically-elected governments need always to craft policies (and none is more critical than the national budget) with an eye on popular sentiments. But for the sake of the nation over the long term, budgetary responsibility and fiscal rectitude trumps all other considerations.
Thus, in truth, the 2020 Budget, as with all previous ones, is laudable for its overall prudence. That is one consistent thing that Malaysians ought to be grateful for: that any government of the day can be counted on to come up with a highly commendable annual spending plan for the entire federation.
The scandals that ultimately sank the previous administration were not the result of any faulty budgetary plans. They happened despite such plans. If anything, the cautionary tale here is that the economic and financial side of government, although intimately linked to its political and administrative side, can and did (at least over a short period) run fairly independently of each track.
The overall single most prudent thing to watch out for and to never let happen again is to have the prime minister double up as his own finance minister. Executive power must be checked from within as the first and probably the most critical line of defence against grievous governmental abuses.
The present difficulty for the current government is that it came to power (against almost all the odds) probably as much because of the serious shortcomings of its predecessor as with its populist campaign promises. The responsibility of running the government naturally tempers the most excessive political promises that were made in the heat of electoral battle. That is par for the course almost everywhere.
The onus thus falls on voters to be sufficiently mature to be able to distinguish between governing and political (vote-getting) imperatives. There will be many who fault the government for failing to live up to its promises while campaigning for office. They should accept that when political promises sound too good to be true, they usually are!
In fairness to the government, there is evidence that it is struggling to meet the promises as much as possible while not losing sight of the larger picture — to continue to grow the economy and stimulate promising future drivers of growth; all the while taking care to not blow a bigger hole in the budgetary deficit.
We see some subsidies (such as direct cash handouts, for example) retained even though Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had been previously against them.
The 2020 Budget somewhat unconscionably also still allocates a full 80 per cent of the entire annual expenditure outlay to operating expenses, despite a laudable effort to not grow the total outlay further.
Meanwhile, the government struggles to bring in new sources of revenue. New taxes are never politically popular. But can it not cut wastage further? What happened to the effort to make a dent to the burden of a rather expansive civil service?
There are also hopeful signs that the government recognises the need to not just pay lip service to growing voices in Sabah and Sarawak crying out for greater economic development and also for constitutional provisions for payment transfers to both states to be honoured.
A promising start has been made in that direction and both state governments must not begrudge their federal counterpart for this purely to gain any political mileage.
Responsible budgets despite a change of administrations seem to be now a given. The focus should shift towards holding the government to its larger promise — to create a more transparent and accountable administration without which any notions of economic transformation will be largely for naught.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak