Contradictheory: Is a gift of money really about the money?

  • Living
  • Monday, 18 Jun 2018

A band of musicians with instruments made of household items busking in Penang to raise funds for Tabung Harapan Malaysia in early June. Photo: The Star/Gary Chen

It's Aidil Fitri weekend, and what could be more synonymous with this auspicious festival than the adults forgiving their children for the year’s transgressions, who in turn thank their parents for giving them this year’s duit raya.

But imagine if you will, if you give a child his packet, and instead he turns to you and says, “I know you are having a tough time of it, and have debts to pay off. Please, I am giving you back this money, and much more that I’ve received from others, to alleviate your burden.”

And then, what if they made a huge mockup of a duit raya packet, and then gave it back to you at a press conference, with smiles, all the while saying, “We are doing this because we love our parents”?

If this sounds like a relatively lame attempt to make a festive analogy about Tabung Harapan, well, you’re right, and I’m sorry.

I apologise not because I’m wrong about the core idea, but because I feel I have to resort to a rather cheap, opportunistic analogy to make a point. Economics are really complicated to my brain, and I try not to talk too much about all the details because I might get it wrong.

But, perhaps I owe you a somewhat fuller explanation, although let’s be honest here, you already know the obvious flaw.

At the time of writing, Tabung Harapan has collected RM56.7mil in the last two weeks. To put this in context, Mercy Malaysia received donations of about RM20mil and RM10mil in 2015 and 2016 respectively. On the other hand, Lembaga Zakat Selangor collected RM673,736,282 in zakat (alms) in 2016 (and that’s just for Selangor alone!).

So Tabung Harapan’s collection number is impressive for a charity organisation, but is somewhat small compared to other voluntary funds (if you accept that zakat must be given freely and willingly).

Nevertheless, the number is dwarfed by the size of the debt that Tabung Harapan is meant to address, whether you are referring to the RM686.8bil official debt, the RM199.1bil government guarantees that will probably have to be eventually paid out, or even the RM201.4bil lease payments through public private partnerships.

Did you understand any of that? I’m not sure I did myself. That’s why I use analogies. It’s like your dad trying to pay off that huge electricity bill, or that bill at the local kedai runcit that your sister said she’d pay but instead took your money and bought a Birkin bag, or your wife going for singing lessons that will be paid off bit by bit. (I understand, the analogy is being stretched here.)

There’s a lot of money to be paid off. But the bigger point is that that duit raya you’re giving back is really small compared to the size of the bills. As in, your duit raya totalled RM56.70 and the bills to pay off were in the order of a million ringgit.

Another reason the Government shouldn’t be so keen to recall all its debt is because most of it is held by Malaysian entities.

In fact, 97% of Malaysian debt is in ringgit. Organisations like retirement fund Kumpulan Wang Persaraan, the Employees Provident Fund and Malaysian banks hold this debt, in the form of bonds. And to these organisations, these bonds are assets which are very safe because the Government of Malaysia is a very reliable institution which will probably never not fulfil the bond. Holding these assets allows these institutions to do the work they do.

If the Government somehow recalls these bonds early, it means these institutions will have to look elsewhere for assets. These may be bonds from the private sector, but if so, they will be less secure than one issued by the Government.

With the proviso that I may not fully yet get, it’s a bit like: If you have your Raya money, and you need somebody to take it off your hands because you want to play with your cousins, you want to give it to your parents, because you know they are reliable.

But if your parents say no, don’t give us money because we don’t want to owe you any, then you’re forced to give to Ali, that elder cousin whom you know might accidentally spend it on a new toy if you don’t keep an eye on him.

Stretching the analogy even further, because you had old parents who (allegedly) were very wasteful with money, and now you have new parents whom you believe are much more reliable, even if the old grandfather in charge seems to be recycling a lot of the ideas he had 20 years ago. There, the analogy is now officially broken.

Let’s instead backtrack and look at the bigger picture. Now, honestly, is Hari Raya about the money? At the end of the day, the most valuable asset is an intangible one. I’m not talking about a full stomach or gastritis. No, it’s that bubbly feeling of love and trust and faith that we all have in one another.

This whole Tabung Harapan case should be something similar. It’s not about being happy that people are willing to part with money. It’s recognising that the people cast their vote and put their hope in new leadership that they believe in. So the job of the Government is to not squander this great opportunity that every government would kill to have: a passionate public asking – willing – to be led.

So the MPs should ask for volunteers. Look for social good. Leverage the talent at your disposal.

And for goodness’ sake, do it properly. Don’t organise a handout in the middle of Chow Kit and leave a mess for somebody else to clean up.

Let us build a society that leverages the best within us, be it clearing the trays after we’ve eaten or clearing our institutions from corruption. It’s harder than putting some money aside and stuffing it into a national piggy bank. But if done well, it will kick-start a realisation that the phrase “charity begins at home” is more true than you would think.

The print version of this column appeared in Star2 on June 17. In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at

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