IRONICALLY, Malaysians had put aside more money for rainy days during the Covid-19 crisis last year.
In January this year, Malaysians had savings of RM172.8bil, based on Bank Negara statistics. By November, it had gone up to RM211.7bil, which represents an increase of 22.5%.
The increase is phenomenal and suggests that households were spending less when they had more money in their hands.
The moratorium on loans for six months beginning end March 2020 and restrictions on travel generally left Malaysians with more money in their hands. The heightened level of awareness and precautionary measures to avoid being infected resulted in many not frequenting restaurants, malls or recreational places.
During the first MCO starting from March, shops were closed at 8pm, restaurants were only allowed to cater for takeaways, malls were closed and domestic tourism came to a stop.
Even after the MCO was replaced with a conditional MCO, the fear of getting infected resulted in restaurants and shops generally not seeing the kind of business that they were used to prior to the pandemic.
Households with extra cash were not incentivised to spend them as the fear of tough days ahead was overriding. Fears of losing their jobs and reduction in income as businesses see a drop in their revenues were prevalent.
The general trend of cautiousness explains why private consumption is down to negative 0.5% last year.
This year, the government is forecasting private consumption, which anchors aggregate domestic demand, to rebound to 9.8%. The forecast was done without taking into account another round of lockdown, which is MCO 2.0.
The government implemented MCO 2.0 in five critical states that are crucial to the country’s economy. There is also no inter-state travel throughout the country, once again killing domestic tourism.
Compared to last year, generally the public is more prepared this time around to face the lockdown. There is no rush to get groceries and there are no empty shelves in most supermarkets. Compared to the MCO last year, the public knows what social distancing is all about this time around.
Amidst the general level of awareness, what’s perplexing is the latest MCO has the same level of restrictions as the previous one.
Apart from reduced operating hours for shops and eateries, barbers, saloons, opticians, motor mechanics and a host of companies providing services are all compelled to close.
What’s the logic in applying the same rules as the previous MCO when the level of awareness has heightened? Are there clusters originating from a barber shop?
Putting up police checkpoints at the borders of districts is also not helping the small businesses.
For instance, a small contractor with some work more than 10 kilometres from home will face roadblocks before he and his workers can even reach the work site. Those without an authorisation letter from the International Trade and Industry Ministry will face difficulties to move around.
And many small businesses do not have the letter.
The MCO is already strict and largely curtails movements. If the fear is that these small businesses would not practice SOPs, enforcement action should be heightened.
Just put some of those who flout the rules in jail for a few hours and the rest will immediately toe the line.
Malaysians tend to eat late. It’s unlike the Western countries where most restaurants close at 10pm. In fact, there are a lot of people here who tend to buy their food after 8pm.
By reducing the operating hours and not allowing many service providers to operate, small businesses have more reason to employ less people. It affects cash circulating in the system and raises the already increasing unemployment numbers.
Ultimately, it would impact private consumption, which anchors Malaysia’s aggregate demand. Private consumption forms the bulk of the country’s aggregate demand and plays a key role in driving the supply-demand situation.
Private consumption growth was 6.9% in 2017,8% in 2018 and 8.7% in 2019. In all the years, the economy grew at a reasonable pace.
Last year, private consumption shrunk by 0.5% and the country went into a recession. Next year, it is targeted at 9.8% with the economy slated to grow up to 7.5%.
But if private consumption is crimped due to the MCO 2.0, it will affect growth.
The current MCO is supposed to be for two weeks. But the Health Ministry has indicated that it would need to be extended for another four to five weeks to flatten the curve.
While it is only sensible to take measures to flatten the curve, there has to be some level of reasonableness to imposing the new version of MCO.
Eateries, grocers and shops should be allowed to operate the normal hours as they do before the imposition of the MCO 2.0. Roadblocks between districts do not really serve any purpose except for creating inconveniences for people to go about doing their normal work.
MCO 2.0 cannot have the same rules as the previous MCO. Small businesses must have more leeway to survive as this time around, there are no handouts or assistance from the government to keep them going.
M. Shanmugam is a former specialist editor of The Star. Views expressed here are his own.