Time to grow up

  • Lifestyle
  • Sunday, 21 Nov 2010

Just as a child has to let go of his toys one day, a country has to give up certain things as it matures.

OTHER people may have had a box or a cupboard, but I had a good old-fashioned toy chest under the stairs. Over the years the collection grew, and some of my fondest childhood memories were of playing with my Six Million Dollar Man action figure and his bionic arm, or scoping out the living room plains with my Lone Ranger doll, complete with his trusty steed Silver and loyal companion Tonto.

But one day, after I came back home from boarding school, I made a horrendous discovery: my mother had donated my toy chest to an orphanage. I was close to tears. After all, they were my toys. I had played with them, I had grown up with them.

It’s not a million miles away from seeing Malaysians complaining about losing their RON95 petrol when its sold to foreigners in Johor. After all, it’s our petrol. Wepay taxes, and that subsidy comes out of our government’s coffers and those people over the causeway don’t deserve it!

I tried to estimate how many Singaporeans would be buying our petrol in a year, and it ends up being a huge number. My rough estimate is that tens of millions of ringgit of subsidy are lost annually as a result (I would be interested to know how near this is to the actual number). Nevertheless, this is still less than one per cent of the RM10bil or so that the government estimates it will spend in fuel subsidies this year.

Nevertheless, theft is theft, and Malaysians have a right to be upset about this, either at a table with teh tarik in hand or in their letters to thenewspapers.

However, sometimes I wonder what the rakyat are really thinking about. After the recent five-sen price hike of RON97 petrol, I read in the papers about somebody fretting that he would have to sell off his 3.5-litre Nissan Fairlady if the cost of fuelling it became too hard to bear.

“I am already spending RM150 for a full tank ... That means ... RM1,200 spent on petrol in a month,” the person was quoted as saying.

The maths is not difficult. A five-sen hike would mean that this man would have to spend an extra RM30 a month. Over the year, this would indeed become a significant burden, on top of the RM4,000 plus he already has to pay for road tax. I suppose if money is getting tight, selling his car second-hand would raise an extra RM200,000, which could help him balance his budget. I think he’ll manage to find RM360 from somewhere.

Of course, I’m sure he’ll point out that he’s not worried about this five-sen hike, but the next one, and the next one after that.

My advice to him would be this: The government has given fair warning that the price of RON97 will now change to reflect current market value. Bearing in mind that all our neighbours (except Brunei) are paying more for their RON95 than we are for our RON97 (the cheapest is about RM4.10 in Thailand), I think it would be prudent for him to expect prices to increase to that level.

Those of us who use RON95 are, of course, not worried about this – yet. But the question that must be asked is: Why are Malaysians so upset when efforts are made to move the price of petrol back to the world market value?

The usual answers would be that “we are already paying a lot of tax for cars”, or the government is not efficient (or corrupt) when to comes to spending our tax money.

On the latter, I would say that the problem of fixing government corruption is a separate issue altogether from an inefficient petrol subsidy. As for the former, I would say it’s possible to get a very fuel-efficient car in Malaysia these days for only RM139,900 on-the-road; it comes with a CD player, too.

I think that at the root of it all, Malaysians have a misplaced sense of entitlement. We think we deserve cheap petrol because that’s what we’ve been getting for as far back as we can remember.

It’s like a child who’s had these amazing toys for almost all his life, and then not getting them any more. And the government is correct in trying to fix this problem.

How do you get rid of a child’s bad habits?

First and foremost, you can prevent bad behaviour by forcing it on the child – like the way the costlier RON97 has been forced on us.

But in the long term, there needs to be a change in attitude – the child must mature. I don’t know if this is the case, but I wonder if the government is trying to show us the true value of petrol by putting right in our face the ever-widening gap between RON95 and RON97?

Eventually, the price of petrol in Malaysia must rise (if only because we will become a net importer of oil in the next decade). It’s hard when we lose something we think we deserve in the first place, so it has to be forced upon us.

I know I am like that myself. One of my toys that escaped the expurgated chest was a toy ambulance. Right now, it’s sitting on top of my cupboard in plain sight, so I know where it is at all times. But one day, a child may ask me for my beloved ambulance – and I will be ready to let go of it.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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