WITH the current political climate and ongoing Parliament drama, it is no surprise that Budget 2021, aka the “Covid-19 Budget”, is unlike any other.
Announced on Nov 6, the intrigues, critiques and assessments over Budget 2021 are still strong. It’s akin to the description in ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ – is it too conservative? Too populist? Or just right?
On WhatsApp, I received messages about the Budget being too race-centric while other missives suggest there is not enough. Some believe Malaysia needs to seriously talk about race- versus needs-based policy making. Likewise appears Facebook was dominated by issues such as the loan moratorium and EPF withdrawal, while Twitterjaya seems more focused on the Special Affairs Department or Jasa (of which a reduction in its allocation is to be announced).
The point I would prefer to make is that Budget 2021 is more than just about those issues. With over 260 initiatives, there really are many novel and interesting initiatives that the country needs as it navigates the ongoing impact of Covid-19 going into 2021.
Today, I would like to highlight five things that you may have missed in Budget 2021.
1) Supplementary meal plan
Not too many years ago, a Unicef report highlighted that Malaysian children were under-nourished and that stunting was a real development challenge. This situation was worse among underprivileged children.
Hence, the expansion of the supplementary food plan from two days a week to all five days for children from B40 families is welcomed. Over 500,000 Malaysian schoolchildren will benefit from the RM420mil allocation for this.
While Covid-19 has led to school closures and despite the logistic challenges, I’ve been told that distribution of the food and milk still happens where possible. Hopefully, our nation’s schoolchildren get the nutrients needed for their mental and physical development.
2) Funding for mental health
Globally, Covid-19’s spread has coincided with a rise in mental health issues. A CNN report this week highlighted that Japan’s October suicide rate has claimed more lives than Covid-19, owing to increased social and financial security anxiety.
Closer to home, the Health Ministry’s Psychosocial Hotline received over 35,000 phone calls since March (around the time of the initial MCO) on issues such as depression, emotional stress, and anxiety. Alarmingly too, an increase in domestic violence has been widely reported.
Budget 2021 is the first national budget to acknowledge this with over RM45mil allocated for efforts to tackle this, including via a One-Stop Social Support Centre. This centre, in collaboration with NGOs, will provide social protection and moral support to women facing domestic problems, divorce and abuse.
The mental health taboo is slowly being chipped away globally – thus, it is heartening that Malaysian society, often associated as being slightly more conservative, is moving in this direction.
3) Alignment with UN Sustainable Development Goals and support for NGOs and social enterprises
Another first under this latest Budget is its alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A MySDG Trust Fund will be set up towards realising the 2030 goals (pretty woke).
And the government cannot do everything itself. Thus, the RM100mil announced for NGOs and social enterprises involved in social, educational, cultural and environmental causes is timely.
For instance, RM50,000 each to 150 NGOs managing Senior Citizens Activity Centres, RM20mil for NGOs in environmental conservation, and RM50mil for income generation and employment initiatives for the vulnerable.
On the environmental front, over half-a-billion ringgit has been set aside for efforts such as river pollution, coral reef protection and general enforcement. I am especially excited by the mangrove tree planting programmes to preserve mangrove swamp areas and other tree species along the coast including Tanjung Piai, Johor and Kuala Sepetang, Perak.
4) Hiring incentive of up to 60%
As of September, the national unemployment rate stood at 4.6%, or about 1.5 points higher than the previous 10-year average. This is encouraging considering unemployment hit a high of 5.3% in May.
That said, joblessness will still be an issue as Covid-19 prolongs, with certain groups such as persons with disabilities (OKU), those facing prolonged unemployment and those retrenched especially vulnerable.
For them, the government has created a six-month hiring incentive where up to 40% of an employee’s salary will be covered. It goes up to 60% if the person hired is from one of the identified vulnerable groups. The maximum for this is RM6,000 (meaning the employee’s base salary is RM10,000).
The potential for this initiative is immense! It is surprising that this is not discussed or talked about as much.
5) Increase in welfare assistance for the most vulnerable
The last initiative I would like to highlight is the increase in welfare assistance. From RM1.5bil in 2020 to RM2.2bil in 2021, the monthly welfare assistance has been raised across the board covering OKU and senior citizens, and even their care-givers.
A family with more than two children could receive as much as RM1,000 a month in welfare support. That’s a lot of money.
Regular readers of this column would know that I’m a proponent of Universal Basic Income.
I strongly believe that increased welfare assistance programmes can be a catalyst towards thoughts and processes that make basic income a reality.
After all, why not the provision of unconditional income that is sufficient enough to eventually meet a person's basic needs (i.e., at or above poverty line)?
Essentially, it leads to no one needing to go hungry.
I’m all for it.
Another way to think about the Budget is this: What would an alternative or “better” Budget have looked like?
With the cacophonous political scenario, such would have been good – and it’ll let the people assess the pros and cons for themselves. In this regard, our democracy needs some maturing.
Might I add: The initiatives in Budget 2021 transcend politics. The novel ideas behind its various initiatives are truly welcome. It was reported that 6,600 proposals from all segments of society were received. It must have been a herculean effort to assess all, so, kudos to the civil servants who worked on it.
Budget 2021 may not be perfect, and there’s always room to grow. Most importantly, it does give voice to the diverse needs of all Malaysians – especially in these challenging times.
Note: The author is currently attached to the Finance Ministry from his education role and is enjoying his ‘national service’.
Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at email@example.com.