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COLUMN

broken piggy bankOctober 26 – Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng has warned Malaysia that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s maiden budget will be a painful one that requires “sacrifice” from us. 

This is because of the government’s “RM1 trillion” debt that it keeps hammering over our heads.

One of the main reasons Budget 2019 will be a tough one is the abolition of the goods and services tax (GST) that caused the government RM21 billion loss in revenue. Malaysia’s regression to the more opaque sales and services tax (SST), by many accounts, failed to arrest the rising cost of living.

In any case, these are the things I want from Budget 2019:

More health care spending

The government should increase health care spending. Malaysia is the most obese country in Southeast Asia. Treating cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases reportedly costs Malaysia about RM11 billion annually from public and private funds.

Health expenditure should go towards prevention and treatment, rather than constructing buildings. Cancer patients, for example, are put on a waitlist before they can get treatment at public hospitals. Reportedly, seeing a specialist can take six months after the first diagnosis. The cancer drugs available in public hospitals are also very old.

The Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy suggests earmarking 5 per cent of tobacco and alcohol taxes, which amounts to about RM290 million, for additional health funds that can go towards the health promotion and treatment of diabetes and cancer. 

This is a proposal the government should seriously consider, as it only makes sense that the very high taxes one pays for cigarettes should go towards treating illnesses one gets from consuming that product.

The Health Ministry should also focus on disease prevention and promoting healthy behaviour. Besides just trying to ban smoking at open-air eateries or running after MPs who light up in Parliament, the Ministry should launch campaigns promoting physical exercise or healthy eating. Get some influencer to make the campaign popular, like the iconic “Got Milk?” campaign.

No new taxes

The government must not raise personal income tax or corporate tax or implement any new taxes whatsoever, whether it is a capital gains tax, inheritance tax, soda tax, or tax online transactions. 

It does not make sense to tax online transactions if the government wants to grow the digital economy, especially if it wants to get the bottom 40 per cent on board.

The government should provide more tax exemptions or reliefs instead.

If the government wants to raise revenue, then cut operational expenditure and lay off some civil servants. Retrenchment is happening in the private sector, like the media industry. Why should the public sector be any different? So the government must be prepared to “sacrifice” deadwood to ensure a lean and mean civil service.

Or, you know, repeal the SST and go back to the GST.

Invest in education

Budget 2019 should increase allocations for public universities. The government should also invest in STEM education and research and focus on producing good teachers in school. Maybe even increase their salaries to make teaching an appealing profession.

Public schools cannot continue to rot to the point that middle class Malaysians are prepared to sacrifice an arm and leg just to send their children to private school.

English proficiency among school students needs to improve a lot. Make English a compulsory-pass subject in SPM. Perhaps the government can work with the private sector to bring in English tutors.

And since the government is proposing reducing the voting age to 18, the government should introduce civics education starting from Form 1, with an emphasis on constitutional rights, how a parliamentary democracy works, how the three branches of government check each other, how lawmakers are elected, and how laws are made in Parliament and the state legislative assembly.

The syllabus for the Form 4 “Pendidikan Sivik dan Kewarganegaraan” subject, for example, seems awfully basic and more suited for primary school, with content like love your family, avoid drugs, and the major cultural festivals in Malaysia. The little content on the Federal Constitution and governance seems more focused on national unity and security, loyalty to the country, and political stability. 

The Education Ministry should also be far less controlling and give schools more autonomy. I had to jump through hoops just to meet the principal of a government secondary school.

Under the civics subject, schools should allow 15-year-olds to volunteer in political campaigns. Otherwise, how will young people know what various political parties stand for and which ideology best appeals to them?  

Now that Malaysia has proven the fundamental concept of democracy in 2018 – a change of government – perhaps the new civics syllabus will be much more developed with less juvenile content.