All eyes on Muhyiddin as maiden Budget falls under microscope

Syed Jaymal Zahiid And Emmanuel Santa Maria Chin
·5-min read
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin attends a Perikatan Nasional event at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur September 1, 2020. ― Bernama pic
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin attends a Perikatan Nasional event at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur September 1, 2020. ― Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 6 — Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s first Budget will come under extreme scrutiny after it is tabled today, leaving him vulnerable at a time when support for the federal spending plan remains uncertain.

Political analysts said no other prime minister has ever faced so much difficulty in presenting a national Budget, primarily because this has now become a proxy for the motions of no-confidence against Muhyiddin that have been buried.

While all other prime ministers before him had enjoyed undivided support from their coalitions, Muhyiddin heads the fragile Perikatan Nasional pact that does not include Umno and Barisan Nasional, yet depends on both to remain in power.

Muhyiddin has been fighting to hold the fragile ruling alliance together, after Umno came close to withdrawing its support after its party’s leaders were snubbed for key roles in the PN government.

While rivals, both within Muhyiddin’s own coalition and in the Opposition, have asserted that they would support Budget 2021 in the nation’s interest, analysts said they were unlikely to take the pressure off Muhyiddin.

Wong Chin Huat, political scientist at Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, believes the Opposition’s scrutiny of the Budget will be intense, with the bloc likely looking to force concessions by exploiting the coalition’s uncertain majority.

“A rigorous scrutiny and concrete proposals to amend the Budget plans — or rejecting it if the government refuses — must not be seen negatively as politicking,” the analyst said.

“To ensure the Budget is smoothly passed after a rigorous debate, the incumbent government has a duty to strike a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the Opposition.”

Muhyiddin’s coalition came close to collapsing after half of Umno’s 39 MPs were rumoured to have thrown their support behind Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in a takeover bid that eventually fizzled out.

This fuelled talks about a plan to turn the budget into a vote of no-confidence against the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president, after nearly two dozen motions to test the prime minister’s majority were submitted.

A Private Member’s Motion can only be expedited for tabling with the de facto law minister’s directive.

Muhyiddin responded by seeking to suspend Parliament through a proclamation of emergency, but was unable to convince the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who instead called for unity in the face of the pandemic.

The Agong has since appealed to all MPs to support Budget 2021, with most agreeing to heed his advice, although some hinted that the support will be conditional.

For the Opposition, their support will hinge on the concessions the Muhyiddin administration would be willing to make.

Pakatan Harapan has proposed a so-called “Unity Budget” with six key recommendations that entail increased healthcare spending, protecting jobs and businesses, and doubling assistance for low-income workers and vulnerable communities.

The Opposition has stressed that any cooperation will be ad hoc, and does not imply endorsement of the Muhyiddin government.

“If the Cabinet adopts them then we will have a ‘unity budget’,” said PKR Subang MP Wong Chen, adding that his party will not promise blind support.

“If the government refuses to adopt them, then we will have to wait and see the content of the PN budget on November 6. Consultation is a two-way traffic, we have done our part to comply with Agong's advice and now it is up to the government to respond to us.”

Analysts said the allocations in the Budget will be crucial to sway broad support and will be watched closely, since it could become potential flashpoints and a source of discontent if not managed well, given the clashing ideologies or interests between the different parties.

Zouhair Rosli, senior researcher at public policy outfit, DM Analytics Sdn Bhd, believes the Muhyiddin administration will have to prove itself, starting with a larger Budget, given criticism of PN’s Covid-19 response.

Detractors said the Prihatin stimulus package, which Muhyiddin presented to be worth RM300 billion even though direct fiscal injection was just a fraction of that, was at best modest and far insufficient to deal with the scale of economic damage wrought by Covid-19.

“The government should spend more. The question is, how do they spend the money? Will it address all groups? Will it not leave certain vulnerable groups behind? Will it achieve an equal recovery across economic agents in this country?” he said.

“Or will it only benefit big corporations and sideline micro and small enterprises? Will it help the self employed such as Makcik Kiah too, rather than just the employees? These are the questions that we need to address.”

Zouhair was among critics who felt Muhyiddin’s Covid-19 stimulus did poorly to mitigate job losses and support poor and vulnerable communities. He called for increased and frequent assistance instead of one-off aids.

Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz hinted earlier this month at a larger Budget with spending focused on creating more jobs and to “restart the economy”, he said, suggesting more development in the pipeline.

Bernama cited experts forecasting the continuation of mega infrastructure projects such as the RM68 billion Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR), the Mass Rapid Transit Line 3 or MRT3 (RM45 billion), and the Penang Transport Master Plan (RM18 billion).

All that spending could thwart the government’s deficit target, a justification Zafrul had used to defend the size of PN’s stimulus.

But the minister’s revelation about the Budget’s size suggests many decision makers in PN are prepared to forego certain things given what is at stake: losing power.

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