THE question is appropriate. Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said just two days before the budget that the government hopes to get a new mandate from the people if issues related to Covid-19 and the economic recovery plan can be resolved.

Here’s what Bernama reported:

“Muhyiddin said the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government really hopes to get a new mandate from the people through a general election.

“He said the general election could be held if issues relating to Covid-19 and the economic recovery plan were resolved. ‘If the two issues can be resolved, I really hope we would get a new mandate.

“‘We have reached out to the people and asked them to consider. If they think that the PN government is good and cares about them and their problems…they will show their appreciation,’ he said at a special media conference with Bernama and local television stations here today (November 4) ahead of the tabling of Budget 2021.”

Go back a little and the same message is there. Ahead of the September 26 Sabah polls, on September 18, Muhyiddin said the country could go to the polls if PN won the elections. And then again after the Sabah elections, he said the victory had set the stage for PN to seek a new mandate.

But the rise in Covid-19 cases, mostly as a direct result of unrestricted campaigning in the Sabah elections and the spread to Peninsular Malaysia, seemed to put a dampener on the possibility of polls.

With an impending challenge to his prime ministership via a vote of no confidence, Muhyiddin and a few of his henchmen, with a tempestuous cabinet meeting which eventually agreed on the polls, petitioned the King for an emergency.

The King eventually turned down the petition after a meeting of the Ruler’s Council following broad objections to the emergency. Muhyiddin’s popularity took a beating after that attempt to declare an emergency citing Covid-19 as an excuse, which was widely perceived as a move to extend his tenure longer.

The latest budget is clearly designed to get his popularity back on track after that beating following the emergency attempt. However, prudence may well have been sacrificed as the figures show rising expenditures, debts and giveaways, all clear signs of an overly expansionary budget.

It will help push the economy up too and help to achieve the economic growth target of 6.5-7.5% growth next year, but at what cost? And where are the funds going to come from?

For instance, government expenditure for 2021 is going up 17% to RM323 billion, the highest ever with development expenditure up almost 40% to RM69 billion. On top of that, Covid-19 expenditure is a massive RM17 billion, including some direct stimulus packages, taking the budget deficit to 6% of GDP (gross domestic product – the sum of goods and services produced in a year).

Debt at the end of 2019 was RM793 billion – 52.5% of GDP but at the end of this year, it is projected to hit RM874 billion – 60.7% of GDP, already exceeding the limit which was raised earlier this year to 60% of GDP from 55% previously.

Where is the funding going to come from for this? Petronas dividends this year alone totalled RM34 billion despite losses. As their cash reserves are coming down, our safety net is coming down too.

Although revenue is projected to rise, no revenue-generating measures, such as the reintroduction of the goods and services tax or a capital gains tax has been mentioned, raising questions of how the budget can be bridged.

The populist nature of the budget is also reflected in its direct targeting to “empower” Bumiputera entrepreneurs through an allocation of RM4.6 billion. On top of that, there is an allocation of RM6.5 billion to provide “easy access” to bumiputeras of quality higher education.

This is in stark contrast to other communities – RM170 million for Chinese community developments, and RM100 million for Indians. It’s almost as if the message is going out strongly that there will be strong plans to help bumiputeras, targeting the group which is supposed to bring in the votes for PN and further widening the racial divide.

In the meantime, hardly anything has been done about a unity budget. One meeting does not a consultation make in something as important and complicated as the budget, especially when there are so many questions related to financing and sustainability. You need longer and continuous engagement for it to be meaningful.

The revival of the Special Affairs Department (Jasa) propaganda unit under the Communications and Multimedia Ministry, with a high RM81 million allocation left little doubt that the government was going to mount a huge public relations exercise.

With such a questionable budget laid on the table, so to speak, it would be very difficult for opposition MPs to sanction it. Muhyiddin’s day of reckoning may still be on the cards yet even if the costs for that may also be high. – The Vibes, November 10, 2020

P. Gunasegaram says that an election budget takes its toll on us after the elections. He is editorial consultant at