Principles do not change in a pandemic

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Cartoon from the book The Budget - How the Government is spending OUR money by Teh Chi-Chang

In these tough times of a trust and integrity deficit, principles of accountability, inclusion, justice and equality must continue to guide us, writes Prema Devaraj.

The last few months have been tough on a number of levels.

Between the political manoeuvring for power and wealth; the attempt by Perikatan National to declare a national emergency; the handling of the coronavirus pandemic; the recent spike in Covid-19 cases after the Sabah elections, which was a lesson about irresponsible politicians; and the impact of lockdowns and movement control orders, resulting in thousands of people losing their jobs and being pushed into poverty, there has been little to rejoice about.

But for some, there was a bit of excitement over the outcome of the US presidential election, which saw President Donald Trump being defeated by President-elect Joe Biden (not that Trump is willing to accept what has happened!).

While there was some rejoicing and hope that the world would soon see less of Trump, the amount of support he still has and his ability to incite people into violence is worrying. He has created chaos and is dividing the country with his dangerous rhetoric. He is a lesson on how not to behave.

The US polls also saw the emergence of the country’s first woman vice-president-elect. Kamala Harris has shown us what is possible in the US. She is a role model for countless women around the world.

Unfortunately, that level of enlightenment was in stark contrast to the lazy thinking and pathetic stereotyping of a TV3 news broadcast that said Harris was the “child of an illegal immigrant”. Although an apology was made, the thinking behind the comments was exposed.

Leaving the drama of the US election, we turn to the Malaysian Parliament, where the debate on Budget 2021 is ongoing. Due to the ‘concern over Covid-19 transmission’, parliamentary sittings are limited to four hours a day, with a cap of 80 MPs who can be present in the Dewan Rakyat at any one time.

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Many are wondering what the difficulty is in arranging a combination of safe distancing and online parliamentary sessions to ensure a full sitting for a proper debate. Other countries seem to be able to do it, and we also had a youth-led “Parlimen Digital” in July this year. Surely there is sufficient IT expertise in the country to look into the technical side of things. If, however, there are legal or constitutional impediments, then what steps are being taken to sort this out? Does this mean that as long as the pandemic continues, Parliament will be unable to function properly? If so, that would erode parliamentary checks and balances on the executive to the detriment of the people.

Coming back to the Budget being planned in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the global economy – people’s basic needs and survival must be the priority.

It is a time of uncertainty and unprecedented job losses. Individuals and families are being pushed into poverty. Those who are already in that category are in a desperate struggle for sheer survival, ie having food to eat and a roof over their heads.

Targeted relief for the poorest families is a must. Not only are families faced with financial stress and strain but with poverty comes a host of problems, including poor nutrition, which if prolonged will undermine the physical and mental development of children in these families.

Even in pre-Covid-19 times last year, about 20% of children below five in Malaysia were reportedly experiencing stunting, with one of the underlying elements cited being a lack of household food security. What will happen now? How will the Budget address this?

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Budget 2021 includes several proposals to help people, business and industry through the pandemic. However, several concerns from different quarters have been raised.

These include, for example, what many have deemed to be “political allocations”, ie the proposed revival of the Special Affairs Department (Jasa) with an allocation of RM85.5m, when there is already a Ministry of Communications and Multimedia Ministry, which can deal with the dissemination of information.

That’s not all. The Budget allocates a whopping RM11.6bn for the PM’s Department (a 32.4% jump from last year) and RM8.8m to the newly formed local community mobilisers group – “penggerak komuniti tempatan”- reportedly PN’s representatives in opposition-led states.

Some have expressed concern over the move to allow people to withdraw some of their retirement savings from the Employees Provident Fund – which could erode their financial security in old age.

Others are worried that a budget cut to the prosecution department of the Attorney General’s Chambers could undermine the effective prosecution of criminal cases, including, for example, sexual crime and domestic violence cases.

Still others have criticised the large allocations for questionable mega-projects during this pandemic and wondered whether the Budget really understood how badly the movement restrictions have hit small businesses.

As the Budget debate continues, more issues will no doubt be raised. Budget 2021 needs to be thoroughly discussed before it can be passed. This is an important part of the democratic process in Parliament, and MPs should not be railroaded into passing the Budget if they find it inadequate or not serving its purpose. So what was the necessity for the finance minister to suggest that civil servants might not be paid if the Budget was not passed?

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To secure more funds, the government should follow the New Zealand government’s example in taking a pay cut. Perhaps over the next 12 months, Malaysian ministers, deputy ministers and special envoys could contribute 20% of their salaries to the Covid-19 Fund. Likewise, ordinary MPs and directors of government-linked companies could donate 10% of their salaries to the fund. This would allow them to show solidarity with those who are suffering.

Covid-19 is upon us, and it will be with us for a while. But it does not mean we have to lose our ability to think clearly or give up the right to speak out against injustices.

Neither does it mean we should give the government of the day the right to do as it pleases, using Covid-19 as a pretext. A government, in determining what is good for the country, must be accountable to the people at all times.

In any democracy, the demand for accountability, the expression of critical opinions and the push for good governance and the rule of law are not criminal activities. These should in fact be encouraged.

Keeping silent should not become part of the ‘new normal’. We have to guard against the dumbing down of society lest the country slowly comes under a despotic regime with no checks and balances or any semblance of a true democracy.

In these tough times of a trust and integrity deficit, the principles of accountability, transparency, inclusion, justice, equality and respect for each other must continue to guide us.

Principles do not change in a pandemic, nor should they with the government of the day. We must hold these principles close and let them light our way forward.

Prema Devaraj
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
20 November 2020
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loyal malaysian
loyal malaysian
21 Nov 2020 6.21am

Yes, Prema, principles do not and should not change even in a pandemic. The problem is that this backdoor govt. does not have nor hold any of those noble principles.

RM11.6bn for the PM’s Department (a 32.4% jump from last year) and RM8.8m for “penggerak komuniti tempatan”- Prema, thank you for bringing these other excesses in Budget 2021 to light.
All MPs are still exhorted to pass it?
If they do so without ensuring amendments for a more people-centric buget, let all MPs be cursed for eternity – except those MPs who voted against it but are outnumbered?

It has been about 2 weeks since Budget 2021 was announced.
Despite criticisms from civil society, no amendments have been announced.
So, looks like a showdown is looming?