It’s not just 30 sen, Mr PM!

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The cumulative effect of fuel price increases is having a crushing and crippling effect on Malaysians.

by P Ramakrishnan 

The recent hike in petrol price is being justified as unavoidable and necessary for the development of the country. We are made to believe that without the savings in subsidy of RM4.4 billion from this hike, the government is in no position to upgrade and overhaul the  deplorable public transport system that  has made the lives of many a daily misery. What happened to the savings from earlier reductions of the petrol subsidies? Where did those savings go to?
 
We have no idea when this problem of poor public transport will be tackled or in what manner it will be resolved. Will every sen be used for the general good of all Malaysians so that development will be spread out to benefit the entire country? Or will money continue to be poured into Kuala Lumpur to reflect the lopsided development that has robbed the rest of the country of its legitimate share?
 
The many massive road-widening and elevated highway construction projects – running into billions of ringgit – aimed at easing traffic congestion, the LRT and Monorail introduced as alternative transportation exclusively for Kuala Lumpur – all these have drained the coffers of the nation without really making life comfortable for commuters.
 
This lopsided concentration of development in Kuala Lumpur has left the rest of the country reeling and in dire need. This explains why the public transport system is in shambles, why potholes are not attended to, why broken down bridges have not been repaired, why there is no adequate housing for the poor and deserving, why certain effective drugs are not available at the hospitals. The many short-comings can be traced to this selective and discriminative development – and poor planning – that takes place in Kuala Lumpur.
 
In the light of this, it is legitimate to ask how this RM4.4 billion savings will be distributed to the rest of the country to improve the transport system that is in shambles. What kind of improvement does the Federal Government have in mind to upgrade the transport system, which is in a deplorable state and a nightmare for Malaysian commuters? Granted, it may be too early to give details but surely it is possible to state how much money from this savings will go to each and every state in the country. For example, how much will Sarawak get? This is the minimum token gesture  that can be expected from the government  to convince the public at large that the government is genuinely committed to solving the transportation misery of all Malaysians.
 
What are the implications of petrol price increases?

From 1 October 2004 to 27 February 2006 the petrol price has been increased four times. In a short span of 17 months the price has gone up by RM0.55 per litre. This is a whopping hike of 40 per cent.

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And each time the price goes up, the price of other commodities increases correspondingly. In other words, it is not the price increase of petrol alone that causes hardship to the people. It is not the only financial burden that people have to bear. Every time there is a fuel price increase, it also inflates the prices of other goods. This is the problem and it is this cumulative burden that is a crushing blow for many people. And it is this which makes the lives of the poor a living hell.  

Even clerks and teachers with several school-going children have reached the end of their tether. It is indeed difficult for single income households to make ends meet. What more for the odd-job workers with no fixed incomes, the estate workers, the fisher folk, the rice planters owning small plots, the pensioners, the factory workers and the labourers? We don’t have a minimum wage to cushion the effects of inflation. This hardship is piling up on the poor because of neglect as well as the wastage arising from mega projects. We give more attention to beautification projects compared to what we do to seriously alleviate the plight of the unfortunate, the homeless, the evicted – the deprived segments of our society.   

Devastating effects

So when the price went up on 28 February 2006, Mr Prime Minister, we are not grumbling about the 30-sen increase. Malaysians are devastated by the entire cumulative effect of  price increases, which have a crushing and crippling effect on them.
 
It is not only the 30 sen, Mr Prime Minister, that Malaysians have to cope with. They need to pay more for almost everything they need to sustain themselves. You rightly asked, why should roti canai cost 10 sen more and teh tarik 30 sen more. But Malaysians cannot resort to such rhetorical questions and expect their problems to be solved. They have to pay that increased price to eat. Otherwise, they go hungry. Besides the roti canai and teh tarik, the price of hawker food and beverages have also gone up.
 
The price of cooking gas – a government-controlled item – has gone up between RM3.30 and RM5.00. Why? The price of batteries, engine oil, tyres and spare parts have all gone up by 10-15 per cent. Why?
 
Last year, when the price of petrol went up by 10 sen, a cylinder of 11kg Mobil cooking gas went up by 20 sen, from RM17.10 to RM17.30 But following the present increase, that very same cylinder of gas has gone up by RM3.30 to reach RM20.60 – an increase of 18 per cent. Why?
 
Last year, before the 10 sen increase, a one-way trip to Kuala Lumpur from Penang and vice versa used to cost RM23. But after the 10-sen increase, the fare went up by RM4 to RM27 – an increase of 17 per cent. Why?

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Likewise, everything else has gone up four times since 1 October 2004. And now, we hear that electricity tariffs may be raised in the near future. Today, many Malaysians find it terribly difficult to manage their households and provide the minimum comforts to their families. They are frustrated and angry. It is good that you are aware of it when you publicly admitted to the fact that people are angry because of this. But the question is how are you going to elevate their financial hardship? Since you took over as Prime Minister, the hardship of the poor has continued to rise without any let up.
 
A retiree from Penang, one Kayamu Nadar, 64, moaned that he had to pay RM14 in taxi fare to go to the hospital from Gelugor. The previous fare used to be RM8 but that price had gone up by 75 per cent following the present 30-sen hike! People like this retiree are often forced to take the taxi simply because the mini-buses plying their route are crammed and often unable to pick up passengers as a result. In other cases, there are no bus services at all!.
 
We realise that solving the miserable transport woes will take a while. But what about the misery of the people hard hit by the escalating prices of food, beverages and other daily necessities? How is the government going to ensure that cost of basic necessities is within the means of the poor?
 
What lifestyle?

Your Deputy, Mr Prime Minister, has come out with an unbelievable suggestion, asking the people to change their lifestyle! What lifestyle is he talking about? Does he know what he is talking about? What lifestyle do the working class – the road sweepers, the school gardeners, the rubber tappers, the fisher folk, the homeless, the disabled and other deprived Malaysians who are struggling to make ends meet – have? How do they change their miserable condition to ease the pain of living and struggling? They cannot tighten their belts any more because there are no more holes left. 

We are just lost for words when the Deputy Prime Minister asks the poor to change their lifestyle! Is he aware that many of them have to resort to more than one job just to make ends meet? Is he aware that there are children going to school without breakfast? Is he aware that some have to walk many miles because their parents cannot afford to pay their bus fare? Is he aware that many have to survive without piped water and electricity? What lifestyle do these people have? And how do they change their present lifestyle? Change to what lifestyle?
 
When we have people struggling on a daily basis to survive, it is a shame that we have a system that pays fat salaries to the top guys without even bothering to ensure that ordinary people get a minimum wage. These top guys not only get fat salaries but they also get free water and electricity. Not only that, they also get monthly entertainment allowances! The entertainment allowances are just given out without any need to justify whether they are used for the purposes intended!
 
How much entertainment allowance does the Deputy Prime Minister receive? Doesn’t he get free accommodation? Doesn’t he get a chauffeur-driven car? A paid gardener to keep his compound neat and trim? How many servants is he entitled to at the expense of the state? Does he pay telephone bills? Does his travelling cost him anything? How much in claims does he make in a month?  Is it any wonder that he is not in a position to understand the misery of the poor or appreciate their plight?  

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If anyone has to change the lifestyle, Mr Prime Minister, it is the government that must give serious thought to this suggestion.
 
What now?

Mr Prime Minister, though you have stated that you are going to come up with a formula to help ease the burden of the people hard hit by the petrol price hike, so far you have not revealed your plans. In any case, this will be only something on an ad hoc basis, a temporary measure to address the present difficulties of the people.
 
But we need something on a long term basis. This is what we should be thinking about and planning to bring relief to the people on a more permanent basis. We would like to propose some immediate measures to alleviate the difficulties faced by Malaysians. 

  • We must seriously look at the question of a minimum wage. The government must initiate legislation to implement and enforce the long-awaited minimum wage;
  • We must re-study our privatisation policy decision. There is no merit in privatising entities that are commercially viable. Money generated by these entities should be for the common good of the people and of the country and should not go as profits to individuals;
  • We must re-negotiate the lopsided concessions given to individuals in awarding privatised projects;
  • We must be serious in combating corruption. Too many cases involving high profile individuals are not moving fast enough to convince the general public that the government is relentless in bringing the perpetrators to book.
  • We must review the policy to promote private ownership, including the national cars, so that more emphasis is given to public transport. 

Wastage and squandering depletes our resources; too many beautification and mega projects have put a strain on our economy; contracts awarded without tender at inflated cost have drained away our wealth. These are the things that have to be tackled to save much-needed financial resources to pay for meaningful development. Priority must be given to the needs of the majority in terms of health care, housing, single-session schools, efficient public transport,  day-care centres to keep working mothers at their jobs, and covered drains to safeguard the welfare of the visually disabled.  

We hope that things will be different under your leadership, Mr Prime Minister.

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