Malaysia’s RM1.09 trillion debt, 80.3% of GDP demystified


Analysts say new government needs to quickly introduce measures to reduce the country’s liabilities

ASSUMING the government repays its debt by RM1mil a day, it would take Malaysia 2,979 years to pay off its debts.

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad revealed on May 21 that the country’s debt level has breached the RM1 trillion mark during his first address to civil servants.

The statement, which was nothing less than alarming, has since raised concerns among Malaysians on the country’s fiscal sustainability. Bursa Malaysia was hammered for four consecutive days, as investors frantically sold off their stakes.

The benchmark FBM KLCI saw the biggest year-to-date decline on May 23, tumbling by 40.78 points or 2.21% to 1,804.25 points.

Total gains made by the index this year were all wiped out in just four days following Dr Mahathir’s announcement.

The ringgit, which has weakened since early April, continues to decline as concerns on public debt loom.

Big impact: The benchmark FBM KLCI saw the biggest year-to-date decline on May 23, tumbling by 40.78 points or 2.21 to 1,804.25 points.
An economist tells StarBizWeek that Dr Mahathir’s public announcement on the high debt figure is “not helping”, as anxiety intensifies among Malaysians and in the market.

For context, Malaysia’s real gross domestic product (GDP), an indicator of the size of economy, was RM1.35 trillion as at end-2017 – close to the said RM1 trillion debt amount.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s revenue this year is projected at RM239.9bil as per Budget 2018.

Several critics, including Umno Youth deputy chief Khairul Azwan Harun, claim that Dr Mahathir’s statement on the federal government debt was exaggerated and far-fetched.

AmBank Group chief economist Anthony Dass says that although the current scenario shows some signs of similarities to the 1997/98 Asian Financial Crisis, he would not conclude that the current fiscal condition is somewhat similar to the downturn 20 years ago.

At a glance, the “RM1 trillion debt” remark stands in sharp contrast to Bank Negara’s debt tally of RM686.8bil as at end-2017, putting the federal government’s debt-to-GDP ratio at 50.8% – lower than the 55% self-imposed debt limit.

Dr Mahathir refutes this, saying that the national debt-to-GDP ratio has shot up to 65.4%. A day after his announcement, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng put the ratio at 80.3% of GDP, or about RM1.09 trillion in debt as at end-2017.

Why is there such an obvious difference in the debt amount now that a new government is in place?

Here is where “creative accounting” comes into play.

The lower official debt figures released under the previous Barisan Nasional government had excluded the contingent liabilities and several other major “hidden” debts from the direct liabilities, which amounted to RM686.8bil as at end-2017.

Contingent liabilities, which were released separately prior to this, basically refer to government-guaranteed debt and do not appear on the country’s balance sheet. Examples of contingent liabilities are the loans under the National Higher Education Fund Corp (PTPTN) and certain debt of the controversial 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

As at end-2017, Malaysia’s contingent liabilities stood at RM238bil.

Funding for several government mega-projects such as the mass rapid transit (MRT) projects was also categorised as contingent liabilities. The MRT lines were funded by DanaInfra Nasional Bhd, the government’s special funding vehicle for infrastructure projects.

DanaInfra raises money from the market through sukuk, which are, in turn, guaranteed by the government. The guaranteed amount is classified as a contingent liability.

In the event of less-than-expected revenue collection from the MRT lines moving forward, the government will have to intervene to repay the sukuk holders.

The current ruling government believes that RM199.1bil out of the RM238bil contingent liabilities deserves attention to ensure proper debt repayment.

The 1MDB alone comes with an estimated contingent liability of RM38bil.

High figure: The 1MDB alone comes with an estimated contingent liability of RM38bil. — Reuters
High figure: The 1MDB alone comes with an estimated contingent liability of RM38bil. — Reuters 

On the remaining government guarantees, the Finance Ministry says they have been provided by “entities which are able to service their debts such as Khazanah Nasional Bhd, Tenaga Nasional Bhd and MIDF”.

Apart from contingent liabilities, there are several major “hidden” debts, which do not fall under both direct liabilities and contingent liabilities.

An economist with a leading investment bank in Malaysia calls the debts “off-off-balance sheet” government debt.

These are the future commitments of the federal government to make lease payments for public-private partnership projects such as schools, roads and hospitals.

Examples of such debt would include the debt of Pembinaan PFI Sdn Bhd, a company owned by the Finance Ministry. Pembinaan PFI was established in 2006 under the previous Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi administration to source financing to undertake government construction projects.

According to its latest available financial statement for 2014, Pembinaan PFI held a total debt of RM28.75bil.

Interestingly, at end-2012, the company’s debt was the third highest among all government-owned entities, just behind Petronas (RM152bil) and Khazanah Nasional (RM69bil).

With no independently generated revenue, the interest payments on Pembinaan PFI’s debts would eventually come from the federal government’s coffers.

The Finance Ministry puts the debt under this third category at RM201.4bil.

All together, Malaysia’s debt and liabilities are said to amount to a total of RM1.09 trillion.

Actually, for those in the loop, the different debt categories and total liabilities are not something new.

Lawmakers from Pakatan Harapan, particularly current Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming, have alerted the authorities about the debt figures over that past few years.

Ong is also currently the special officer to the Finance Minister. The layman might ask, what was the former government’s relevance of classifying these debts into separate off-balance sheet items?

The motive is to make sure the national balance sheet looks healthy and lean.

Economists’ take

Many have questioned the new government’s move to lump contingent liabilities and debt obligations with the direct liabilities. It should be noted that as per the standard procedure of credit rating agencies, only the direct liabilities are taken into the calculation of the debt-to-GDP ratio.

In a StarBiz report this year, Moody’s Investors Service sovereign risk group assistant vice-president Anushka Shah said that by carving out certain expenditures off its budget, the government would be able to optimise its expenditure profile and minimise the associated impacts from its spending.

However, she pointed out that Malaysia’s federal government debt burden remains elevated at 51%, relatively higher than the median of other A-rated sovereign states at 41%.

On the country’s contingent liabilities, Anushka described them as “low-risk” at the current level, and added that the government has been prudent and careful in managing the guaranteed debts.

“We find that the government has adopted rigorous selection criteria when it grants the guarantees to the respective entities.

“The companies which have received guarantees from the government are relatively healthy and have strong balance sheet positions,” she said.

Ever since Dr Mahathir shocked the market with the “RM1 trillion debt” remark, the focus among Malaysians has largely centred on the nominal value of the debt.

A greater emphasis should instead be given on “debt sustainability”, which basically refers to the growth of debt against the growth of the economy.

Economists who spoke to StarBizWeek have mixed opinions on the level of seriousness of Malaysia’s public debt problem.

Suhaimi: Malaysia’s debt has risen faster than economic growth.
Suhaimi: Malaysia’s debt has risen faster

than economic growth.

According to Maybank group chief economist Suhaimi Ilias, Malaysia’s debt has risen faster than economic growth over the last 10 years.
“In the past decade, officially published government debt and government-guaranteed debt have risen by 10% and 14.5% per annum, respectively, faster than the nominal GDP growth of 7% per annum, which raises valid sustainability risk.“On the government’s debt service costs relative to the operating expenditure, the ratio was 12.7% as at end-2017 and based on Budget 2018 is projected to rise to 13.2%. It has been rising steadily from 9.5% in 2012.

“There is a 15% cap on this under the administrative fiscal rule, while the 11th Malaysia Plan target is to lower the ratio to 9.8% in 2020. The government is looking at the debt issue from this sustainability perspective in our opinion,” he says.

 

Lee: Malaysia’s rising public debt level warrants close monitoring.
Lee: Malaysia’s rising public debt level

warrants close monitoring.

Meanwhile, Socio-Economic Research Centre (SERC) executive director Lee Heng Guie says that various indicators of debt burden suggest that Malaysia’s rising public debt level warrants close monitoring to contain the long-term risks of fiscal and debt sustainability.

“High levels of government debt over a sustained period will have economic and financial ramifications over the longer term. Rising public debt could crowd out private capital formation and, therefore, productivity growth.

“This occurs through the competition for domestic liquidity, higher interest rates, a shifting of resources away from the private sector or investment in low-impact projects. This situation is made worse if the government wastes borrowed money on unnecessary projects,” he tells StarBizWeek.

In contrast to Suhaimi and Lee, Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd chief economist Manokaran Mottain points out that Malaysia’s debt sustainability scenario is yet to be a cause for concern.

 

Manokaran: Debt sustainability scenario is yet to be a cause for concern.
Manokaran: Debt sustainability scenario is

yet to be a cause for concern.

This is because debt repayments are made on an annual basis as opposed to a colossal one-off payment of RM1 trillion.

“Malaysia’s economic growth of above 5% is sufficient to cover government debt. As long as the economy is growing while the government is able to service the debt charges, it is not really that alarming.

“Even in the United States, the government debt-to-GDP level exceeds 100% at US$21 trillion against the real GDP of US$18.57 trillion,” he says.

Manokaran adds that while total government debt has risen over the years, Malaysia’s annual debt growth rate has been growing slower in recent years.

Deleveraging Malaysia

The government must now move fast to introduce measures to reduce and manage the country’s debt levels. This is highly crucial in assuring creditors and investors that the country’s fiscal health remains uncompromised.

Given the fact that the world is currently at the tail-end of the 10-year economic cycle, it is timely for the government to focus on its ability to fulfil its debt obligations.

In the event of an economic turmoil, a heavily-indebted country would be adversely affected.

Lim has emphasised the federal government’s commitment to honour all of the country’s debts.

“This new government puts the interest of the people first, and hence, it is necessary to bite the bullet now, work hard to solve our problems, rather than let it explode in our faces at a later date,” he said in a statement earlier.

Economists believe that the government must strictly embark on reforming the national expenditure in carrying out debt consolidation.

This includes cutting down on unnecessary expenditure, plugging leakages in the federal government’s finances and containing public-sector wage bills.

Lee has recommended an overhaul the current pension system, considering the unsustainable current trend.

“On revenue reform, the design of tax policy should be fair and equitable in order to be sustainable.

“The push for a wide and investment-friendly reform to boost potential growth should be expedited, as strong investment and economic growth has a huge effect on enhancing revenue growth and reducing public debt.

“On budget planning and development, an oversight body needs to be set up to ensure better fiscal rules, budgetary processes and closer fiscal monitoring to ensure fiscal discipline,” says Lee.

Manokaran says the new government should consider expenditure cuts through the privatisation and reformation of the numerous government-linked corporations, as well as the reduction in size and budget allocation of the Prime Minister’s Office.

On the national mega-infrastructure projects, Manokaran and Suhaimi say that the renegotiation and review of such projects will be vital in managing future debt growth.

Time will tell whether the government can live up to its promise of reducing the public debt dilemma. Pakatan must now balance its “populist” electoral promises and stellar fiscal management policies.

As for now, the government deserves to be complimented for calling a spade a spade, acknowledging the problem at hand.

By ganeshwaran kana The Star

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Telling fact from fiction, fake news


Easy target: Fake news is a big problem here because many of us are too impressionable when it comes to news on the Internet.

HARDLY a day passes without someone sharing a video with me. No one bothers to check, not for a minute, if this could be nothing more than a fake video gone viral. Yet, amazingly, they are quick to forward such things to me.

And that doesn’t even include the unsolicited political messages, through which senders expect their receivers to echo their political enthusiasm.

More alarmingly, residents chat groups on uncollected rubbish or poor maintenance, suddenly see political messages popping up in them. Even prayer and old classmates chat groups aren’t spared, my goodness.

Blame it on what is often dubbed “silly season”, leading up to the general election, but don’t test our patience by diverting our attention to something trivial. It is downright irritating and insulting. And who cares about these politicians, anyway? Not everything in life is about politics, after all.

On Friday, a video went viral on what looked like a gun fight between the police and a notorious gang in Kuala Lumpur.

Some truth-seekers took the trouble to check with the media, but most would have despatched it to their friends in no time at all.

As trained journalists, we obviously scrutinised the video to look for give-aways. It doesn’t take a detective to pick out the holes, but then, there are many gullible Malaysians.

For one, the tiny yellow taxis in the video don’t exist in KL. There is no such building with that staircase structure in the capital, either, and there was a camera crew in plain view running around filming the action scenes, clearly indicating a movie set.

Most of the cars in the video aren’t even models we regularly see in Malaysia, and there was also a guy who ran by wearing what appeared to be heavy clothing.

On Thursday night, it got even sillier.Leaping out of the world wide web was a video of what’s been made to look like a Malaysian student being bullied in a classroom.

The comments by some racist airheads really infuriated me. With the victim appearing Chinese, the bully possibly Malay – he looked Indian to me – it became fertile ground to sow the seeds of hate.

At no point did it occur to them that this video could have come from Singapore. It didn’t even cross their minds that Malaysian students no longer wear uniforms entirely in white. The last time students were decked completely in white was probably in 1979 – during my time as a student. And desks and chairs in green? In our schools?

The Education Ministry has come out to confirm that the incident in that widely-shared video happened in Singapore on Feb 9.

Describing the footage as a “severe case of bullying”, Deputy Education Minister Datuk P. Kamalanathan urged netizens to stop spreading the clip.

“This happened at Westwood Secondary School in Singapore. Please don’t spread this video and claim that it happened in Malaysia.

“Before forwarding anything, it would be wise to authenticate its veracity to avoid confusion and misinformation,” he added.

A group of students from Westwood Secondary School were filmed punching, kicking and throwing chairs at a classmate in a video that then went viral, reported Singapore’s The Straits Times on Feb 18.

In the video posted on Facebook page Fabrications About Singapore on Feb 15, a student can be heard egging his friends on to “teach” one of their classmates a lesson.

Two students were captured throwing chairs at a boy seated at his table in a classroom while on his mobile phone. The boy is stunned when a chair hits his head.

A student then slaps the boy, before throwing a series of punches and kicks at him.

Then, the student overturns the boy’s chair, shoves him to the floor and continues to pummel him.

Then, there was the fake sex video, which purportedly featured national badminton hero Datuk Lee Chong Wei as a “movie star”.

I meet my fellow Penangite regularly, and I can safely say that I have observed him up close and personal.

I can tell that Lee is much more muscular than that skinny, presumably, porno actor in the video, and the hairstyle doesn’t even match our sports idol’s.

Lee has done right by making a police report, and let’s hope the police, with the help of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, swiftly track down the culprits of this vicious smear campaign.

It’s obvious that some people not only want to discredit the three-time Olympic silver medallist but are looking for maximum mayhem by aligning their dubious act to coincide with the release of his feature length biopic Lee Chong Wei: Rise of the Legend next month.

And that’s far from the end of the tall tales. There’s also this pathetic fake news about rejected Musang King durians from China – timed to perfection to be “reported” right before the International Durian festival in Bentong.

The Internet burned with a doctored picture depicting a mountain of the “rejected” fruits, which were said to have been exposed to extremely high levels of insecticide.

Those who shared that piece of poor journalism – either because they were sincerely concerned, genuinely ignorant or politically motivated – didn’t know, or cared to find out that Malaysia doesn’t export durians in its original fruit form but rather, as frozen pulp in packages.

And for sure, the Chinese wouldn’t have wanted to bear the freight charge to return these bad durians to Malaysia. The life span of our durian is only a day or two. How could it have been stacked up like that in the picture?

Durian lovers who inspected the picture could tell they were not Musang King, but instead, something of Thai origin.

With the general election looming, the recycled rumours of Bangladeshi phantom voters arriving by the planeloads at KLIA2 have resurfaced. Even an opposition state assemblyman, in her Chinese New Year video criticising the #UndiRosak activists, cheekily added that “even the Bangladeshis want to vote.” Can you picture 40,000 of them milling at our airport?

Although not a shred of evidence has come to light to back up the incredulous claim, the myth continues to be perpetuated, and it’s a given it will be rinsed and repeated. Perhaps it’ll be the Nepalese or Rohingya this time?

While the ordinary Malaysian can be forgiven for being easily swayed, it’s an entirely different story when journalists find themselves duped, or God forbid, spreading the “news”.

In the 2013 general election, a prominent TV presenter posted on his Facebook page claiming a blackout occurred at the Bentong counting centre, which led to the Barisan Nasional winning the parliamentary seat, slyly implying the coalition cheated during the result tabulation.

He got his network into hot water when he returned to his FB profile to say, “when my child is born, I will ask him to write an essay with the title ‘The Blackout Night’. The beginning of the essay would be on May 5, 2013, there was a stiff fight in the Bentong seat. Someone had said that he would cut his ears if it is lost, and then the counting process started, blackout …”

To credit MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai’s opponent, DAP challenger Wong Tack denied the rumours. But let’s hope this presenter has since matured, and perhaps, become more cynical as a journalist or presenter, at least.

The most frequent fake news that sparks to life every few weeks would be the dates of the Parliament’s dissolution and polling.

Interestingly, in the case of the polling date “report”, it involved the Prime Minister having an audience with the King, accompanied by the Deputy Prime Minister and Speaker.

It’s all very simple, really – the PM doesn’t need anyone tagging along, and after meeting the King, he surely can’t be fixing a date since that job belongs to the Election Commission.

A news portal reported that fake news is a big problem here because many of us are too impressionable when it comes to news on the Internet.

The Asian Correspondent reported: “Without questioning the veracity of certain claims and announcements, it seems that oftentimes, anything resembling a news story – whether shared on social media or via mobile messaging apps – is swallowed wholesale.

“Let’s look at how WhatsApp has become a popular platform to spread news. How many of you have received forwarded messages that clearly resemble fake news and could have easily been dismissed as such? I’m sure so many have, and speaking from experience, it definitely gets frustrating.

“The worst part is that when you question the person who unwittingly forwarded the news, he or she would say, ‘I don’t know if it’s true or not. I received it from someone else, so, I’m just forwarding.’”

This has happened continually because no one is punished for their unscrupulous and reckless deeds, even if their actions lead to undesirable consequences amounting to racial tension, riots and even death.

And the campaigning hasn’t even begun! So, let’s put on our thinking caps and brace for the inevitable soon – a deluge of fake news.

On the beat Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group’s managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.
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Malaysia needs structural reforms says global investor


Middle-income trap, brain drain and high public service spending among Malaysia’s risks

Cheah(pic) thinks the local stock market could go up by between 5% to 10% this year while the ringgit, which has mostly been on an uptrend in recent times, is “still down quite a lot”, against the US dollar.

 

 
Middle-income trap, brain drain and high public service spending among Malaysia’s risks

KUALA LUMPUR: A renowned global investor has called for structural reforms in Malaysia, saying that the country faces “very real” structural issues.

Penang-born Datuk Seri Cheah Cheng Hye (pic) who left Malaysia decades ago counts the middle-income trap, brain drain and high public service spending as current risks to the country.

Based in Hong Kong as the chairman and co-chief investment officer of fund and asset management group Value Partners Group for over two decades now, Cheah who helps manage over US$16bil in funds, however concedes that Malaysia remains a country with huge potential and opportunities.

“I don’t think we should underestimate the importance and attractiveness of Malaysia but what I am saying is that if we don’t want to be stuck forever (being) a so-called middle-income country, we need structural reforms,” he told StarBiz in a recent interview.

“Or maybe… we do want to be stuck because it is a comfortable position and because then, we can make a lot of compromises.”

“ (If that’s the case), we should be frank and say it, don’t pretend that we want to be an advanced country because that requires certain sacrifices.”

“The reality is that we are getting less and less competitive, we ranked number 23 in the latest Global Competitiveness report ,behind France and Australia which are developed countries. (Number 23) is not good enough for a developing country,” said Cheah, who recently made it to the top 40 richest Malaysians list.

Emphasising the issue of brain drain, Cheah, a former financial journalist and equities analyst said Malaysia could perhaps emulate India in this area where the concept of an Indian national overseas card has been introduced.

“I am told there are more than one million Malaysians overseas – (people like) entrepreneurs, these are exactly the type of people we want to stay here but they are not.

“We could introduce a new type of card called the Malaysian national overseas card for Malaysians who have chosen to leave the country and become citizens elsewhere.”

This card will give these Malaysian-born individuals no voting rights but will allow them to come back to work and invest here like everyone else, he said.

Cheah said this could help re-attract talent and there will be no political price to pay, because these people cannot vote here nor transfer this card to their children who would likely be foreigners.

“Some may actually come back, because it is not always greener on the other side… but you must make it easy enough (for them to come back).”

Cheah also pointed out that the amount Malaysia spends on public service is “very high” by any standards.

“Quoting from memory, about 30% of government spending is on civil service salaries and 16.5% of all employment in this country comprise civil servant jobs.

“No matter how you explain it, this is abnormally high ; something that I have learnt from my stay in Hong Kong is, keep the government as small as possible.”

He said although the civil service segment here appears to be bloated, it would be “unrealistic” to fire civil servants.

“Instead, maybe we can consider freezing and redeploying resources.

“Like any corporation, if you have too high a headcount, you freeze hiring and you redeploy people to where they are needed,” Cheah said.

Separately, Cheah, whose investments are mostly China-centric believes that Myanmar could be the next big thing.

“Nowadays, I like Myanmar because it is still cheap.

“It has about 55 million people but its gross domestic product (GDP) is only about US$65bil, Malaysia’s GDP is probably about US$320bil.

“Myanmar has enormous potential, at last they are emerging , gradually reconnecting with the world, they have (a lot of ) raw materials and are in a good position as one of the significant Belt and Road countries, China will go out of its way to invest there.”

Cheah said he would like to set up a Myanmar fund to invest in the country and is in the process of studying this possibility.

Among markets in Asia, Malaysia to Cheah, is “moderately attractive”.

He said consumer sentiment here was finally improving after it took a beating largely due to the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) back in 2015 plus there are some “interesting corporate restructuring taking place.”

Also, it is General Election year which going by history, tends to send the market higher, he said.

“I think there are good arguments why the Malaysian market is good this year but the arguments are not strong enough to result in a very strong market – and there’s also a global environment that’s not as good as last year.”

“I think the US administration is now focusing on globalisation and world trade and it seems to be moving in the direction of conflict with China over trade.

“If there is a China-US trade war, Malaysia will suffer collateral damage because we are a medium-sized player in a global supply chain, so it will be very disruptive,” Cheah said.

Upside for the Malaysian market could also be limited this year, he said, because its current valuation is relatively high at over 16 times price to earnings.

Cheah thinks the local stock market could go up by between 5% to 10% this year while the ringgit, which has mostly been on an uptrend in recent times, is “still down quite a lot”, against the US dollar.

The local unit appreciated by 8.6% against the dollar last year after losing some 4.5%, a year earlier.

At last look, it was traded at 3.9395 against the greenback.

By Yvonne Tan The Staronline
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Call to shed light on PDC’s huge debts owned to Penang govt


GEORGE TOWN: The state has been told to explain the financial status of Penang Development Corporation (PDC) over its alleged mounting debts.

Datuk Dr Muhamad Farid Saad (BN-Pulau Betong) said PDC received a RM600mil loan last year from Budget 2017, while in Budget 2018 the loan to PDC was approximately RM300mil.

Questioning if the debts indicate that PDC was not on stable financial ground, he asked if PDC would be able to pay back the huge sum to the state.

“Both loans are huge. How is PDC going to pay it all back?

“What has happened to the revenue of PDC in recent years? We would like some answers to the whereabouts of the expenditure on whether the sum was used for investment or loan to a third party.

“Is the PDC today not on stable financial ground until there were some who said that PDC has to take a bank loan to give out salaries,” he said when debating the Supply Bill and Budget 2018 at the state assembly sitting yesterday.

State Opposition Leader Datuk Jahara Hamid (BN-Telok Air Tawar) also raised her concern if PDC “was in the red”, considering that it was among the corporations in the past which had developed Bayan Baru and Seberang Jaya.

“PDC has also contributed to numerous state funds. But now, it is the opposite. PDC is borrowing money from the state government,” she said.

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Turning a blind eye: The grumblings over exposed hills are growing louder but little is being done to rectify the situation

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 Grievances from residents warning of environmental damages must not fall on deaf ears

 “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.

MY family home in Kampung Melayu, Air Itam in Penang, is more than 56 years old. That’s about my age, and it has never been hit by floods. Not once!

But last week, my parents – dad is 92 years old and mum, 86, – had their sleep rudely interrupted sometime after 1am by water gushing into their home.

They have been sleeping on the ground floor for years now because they are too old to climb the stairs to their bedroom.

The water that flowed into their room almost touched the top of their bed but fortunately, one of my nephews and his wife from Kuala Lumpur were staying over that night.

It was so fortunate that they were there to calm my anxious parents down and assure them all would be fine. They managed to comfort my stunned folks, who had never experienced such an unpleasant situation before. My father had to be carried to the room upstairs as the house remained flooded throughout the early morning.

Our home was filled with layers of mud the next day and the cars parked outside were all damaged. They sadly look like write-offs.

My father’s pride and joy, his first-generation Proton Saga car – which he bought in 1985 – is now unusable.

A week on, my brothers and nieces are still cleaning up the mess from the massive flood. They haven’t had the time or mood to even assess the financial losses.

And bound by a common sentiment as Penangites, they are tired of the blame game, a trade the state’s politicians have plied to near-perfection.

How many times can the finger be pointed at the previous government, with the incumbent almost 10 years in power? And how many more times can we blame it on torrential rain, which came from Vietnam – or wherever? Worst of all is, when discussions are mooted on flood issues, the voices of the people are swiftly silenced.

It appears that even to talk about hillslope development, one would have to contest in the elections, or be perceived to be challenging the state government, or more extremely, be some kind of lackey in cahoots with the Federal Government.

Blaming everyone else except oneself is simply a way of covering up one’s weaknesses. But the discerning public, in a maturing democracy with heightened transparency and a huge middle class like Penang, will not tolerate such short-term manoeuvring for long.

Suddenly, civil society – a buzzword among politicians – has vanished, with NGOs now regarded as irritants and an affront to the state establishment. Politics is apparently the monopoly of politicians now.

As the National Human Rights Society aptly puts it, “With the benefit of hindsight, we are sure that the Penang government now realises that they should not so readily malign civil society, howsoever obliquely – for the legitimate and well-founded articulation of matters of great concern to civil society.

“This is because it undermines the fundamental values of a functioning democracy and the fundamental human rights of the populace at large.”

Perhaps, the state political elites, many of whom aren’t pure blood Penangites, don’t realise the state is the home of a vibrant civil society, with many active NGOs and activists who are respected influencers of society.

Having walked through the corridors of power and appreciated power’s pleasures, perks and the adulation it brings, maybe it is becoming much harder for people to take criticism. This is, in fact, a reflection of the arrogance of power.

Many have developed thin skin now, with little tolerance for the slightest form of criticism. If anyone even dares raise their voice, an army of cybertroopers, hiding behind anonymity, are unleashed to attack them.

Freedom of speech, it seems, is only the domain of the opposition, with some media (regarded as unfriendly) unceremoniously ridiculed and questioned for their attendance at press conferences.

There are politicians from the Federal Government, too, who are shamelessly cashing in on the flood situation in Penang.

Their relief work must be splashed across news pages, and they have to be seen wading through the flood waters for dramatic purpose. Phua Chu Kang’s iconic yellow boots could likely be the hottest item in the state, as politicians bask in the media’s glare.

Ridiculous remarks have also been passed, one even blaming the state government, saying it has earned the wrath of God.

The rain and floods will go away, eventually. Penangites are stakeholders in the state, and they don’t only make up politicians. The state doesn’t belong to the state government or the opposition.

Caught up in the thick of the action, we seem to have forgotten that the hills are crumbling even without rain. As a stern reminder, just last month, a landslide buried some people in Tanjung Bungah. Investigations on that tragedy are still ongoing.

Basically, the trees – which act as sponge on the hills – are gone. We don’t need to be soil experts to know that.

The grumblings are growing louder because the hills have been progressively going bald in recent years. But the voice of discontent has fallen on deaf ears.

Penangites are alarmed at what they are seeing, and they don’t like it one bit, as much as they understand that land is scarce on the island and property developers need to source some to build homes on.

While it’s easy to hang the Penang state government out to dry for its follies, it’s difficult to ignore how the floods in the east coast states have become annual affairs, too. So, what effective flood mitigation plans have been put in place there?

Kelantan has suffered senselessly, and after more than a year of having been subjected to Mother Nature’s havoc, many victims have yet to recover from their losses. Flooding is obviously nothing exclusive and doesn’t discriminate. Every state has, unfortunately, experienced it in some shape or form.

So, irrespective of location, when life returns to normal, you can expect the politicians to resume their old denying ways.

If there’s a thread that binds our politicians – regardless of which side of the political divide they come from – it is their inability to apologise for their mistakes, despite waxing lyrical about accountability.

Don’t expect them to say sorry, because an apology would be admission of guilt, or worse, a sign of weakness in their realm of inflated egos.

And to put things into perspective, perhaps we could learn a lesson from a quote by prominent American pastor Andy Stanley – “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”
On the beat Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group’s managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.

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Penang tables election budget for 2018: higher defict of RM740.5mil, paints rosy economic picture …



GEORGE TOWN: Penang has tabled a higher deficit state Budget of RM740.5million for the next fiscal year of 2018.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng when tabling the budget, stressed that it was an estimate and it can be reduced if the state records a higher revenue collection.

Among some of the initial highlights for the state was a free Rapid Penang bus service during peak rush hours in the mornings and evenings.

Allocations would also be given to aid the medical tourism and hi-tech manufacturing sectors.

Penang has tabled a projected budget deficit of RM748.5 million for next year, compared to a RM667 million deficit for this year as administration and living costs continue to escalate.

However, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng stressed that the state has a unique distinction of tabling projected budget deficits every year yet recording actual surpluses.

Next year’s operating expenditure is RM1.25 billion, while the forecast revenue collection is RM503.7 million.

The cost savings come principally through the open tender system and an efficient administration, Lim told the state legislative assembly today.

After some 10 years of facing various external economic challenges, Lim said the state’s gross domestic product is projected to outstrip the national average growth of 5.2% for this year.

Penang is targeting a GDP growth of 6% this year with the main contribution coming from manufacturing and services, with farming also showing signs of promise through fish farming.

GDP per capita has increased from RM33,597 in 2010 to RM47,322 in 2016, a 30% increase. Penang’s GDP per capita is the second highest in the country, behind only Kuala Lumpur.

From 2015 to the first half of 2017, Penang attracted a total of RM13.8 billion in approved Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

Tourism has also grown with the number of passengers at the Penang International Airport (PIA) hitting 6.7 million passengers in 2016, exceeding the airport’s capacity of 6.5 million passengers.

The success story in the last 10 years is reflected by annual budget surpluses since 2008, with accumulated budget surpluses over the eight year period between 2008 to 2015 reaching RM578 million.

Lim also announced a range of fresh initiatives, which pundits have described as a people-friendly fiscal plan designed to endear the state government to the voters with the next general election looming near.

> There is a “I Love Penang” card, which is a smartcard for all local residents that allows access to social amenities and benefits provided by the state. The public think tank Penang Institute will be the implementing agency for it, as they have been allocated a budget of RM4.5 million to produce and distribute the smartcards.

> A free public stage bus service was mooted during the daily peak hours in the mornings and evenings – it is aimed at reducing traffic congestion. The project is dependent on the cooperation of RapidPenang.

> Penang has allocated RM60 million to jumpstart a “Pinang Sihat” medical card programme for families whose combined household income is below RM5,000, where the state will subsidise treatment at private clinics.

A medical card will be issued to each recipient, who can only spend up to RM50 per visit to a panel of private clinics who are part of the Pinang Sihat scheme.

“This will help the recipients, who fall ill to see a doctor without worrying too much about expensive charges or travelling to government clinics that are far away from their homes,” said Lim.

> The free mammogram examination scheme for women above 35 years shall continue. So far more than 10,000 women have benefited.

> The state will also be increasing the annual payouts for senior citizens and the disabled from RM100 to RM300 for next year.

> A maximum bonus payout of RM2,000 will be accorded to civil servants who have a good disciplinary record while those below par will only receive RM1,000.

> The state will also allocate RM10 million for hill slope protection efforts, as well as to conceive a study on climate change, and tackle illegal farming.

Later, there was a protest at Komtar, led by former Penang PAS Youth head Mohamed Hafiz Nordin, who urged the state government to rescind the alleged appointment of PKR secretary-general Datuk Saifuddin Nasution Ismail as the new Penang Islamic Religious Council president, replacing Permatang Pasir assemblyman Datuk Salleh Man.

Hafiz argued that Saifuddin was not a religious scholar, therefore he was not suitable for the post. Saifuddin’s replied that holding protests is normal in a democracy.

Source:  Ian McIntyre and Imran Hilmi newsdesk@thesundaily.com

Much ado about nothing

Penang govt also gave an election budget, says MCA leader

“Public housing shortage is serious in Penang. Badminton courts and
swimming pools can be added into low and low medium-cost housing
projects. Tang Heap Seng”

WHAT is wrong with an election budget?

“Election budgets are happy and beneficial things for the rakyat,” said party secretary Tang Heap Seng.

He, however, advised Pakatan Harapan politicians not to “criticise something but did the same themselves”.

“Many Pakatan politicians criticised the Federal Budget and the Penang government did exactly the same.

“They claimed the Federal Budget will help Barisan Nasional win the general election.

“But then, the Penang government also gave an election budget,” said Tang during a press conference at the Penang MCA headquarters in Transfer Road yesterday.

Among the Budget 2018 goodies were Childcare Aid of RM300 for Working Mothers, RM300 aid for each local vocational school students and one-year waiver of business licence for about 29,000 hawkers and traders.

On the state Budget for next year, Tang said while there were many benefits, he was puzzled by the allocation of RM275mil to build 82 badminton courts and four Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“While sports are crucial to a happy society, we wonder why the state paid little attention to Penang’s urgent problems.

“Public housing shortage is serious in Penang. If the government wants to provide badminton courts and swimming pools, these could be added into low and low medium-cost housing projects,” he said.

Penang Gerakan vice-chairman Oh Tong Keong and secretary Hng Chee Wey also issued statements yesterday, expressing bewilderment at the RM275mil allocation.

In contrast, the tabled development expenditure for state Drainage and Irrigation Department is RM12.3mil.

Penang Island City Council and Seberang Prai Municipal Council will spend RM20mil on flood mitigation and for hillslope protection, RM10mil was budgeted.

Tang also said the RM53mil budgeted for the development of Islam was commendable, but wondered why only RM1.1mil would be given to Penang Hindu Endowment Board next year.

He said Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng only mentioned that RM30mil was given to non-Islamic religious development since 2008 when he tabled the Budget.

He said it would be ideal to allocate RM30mil each for the development of Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sikhism and other minor religions yearly.

In a statement as well, Penang Women’s Development Corporation applauded the RM300 yearly aid for each working mother under the age of 60 with children aged six and below through the state Budget.

Meanwhile, Lim clarified that the bonus for civil servants would come from the reserved funds of this year’s Budget.

Earlier, Pulau Betong assemblyman Datuk Dr Muhamad Farid Saad had expressed confusion, saying, “How could you give a bonus this year through a Budget for next year?”

Another government department, seriously? Beef up the existing enforcement agencies !


YET another government department is going to be set up. Isn’t it common knowledge that the Government has serious budget constraints and is not recruiting to add to an already bloated civil service? And now, another tale of bureaucracy is being spun.

No wonder Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief commissioner Tan Sri Dzulkifli Ahmad is upset over the planned formation of the National Integrity and Good Governance Department (JITN)

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low has said the proposed department is expected to improve good governance in the civil service.

How would the JITN as a new and probably tiny department be able to do the job? It would probably involve plenty of miracles since there is a reported 1.6 million civil servants to deal with, although Cuepacs says the figure is only at 500,000. It will be a Herculean task to move this mountain of manpower for what’s needed.

Low must surely have good intentions in wanting to set up the JITN, but its objectives and plans remain, at best, vague, at this point.

Its name and role seem almost identical to that of the Integrity Institute of Malaysia (IIM) and Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission.

The IIM, the brainchild of then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was set up in 2004 and continues to function.

Its website reads: “IIM’s role is to facilitate the aims and objectives of the National Integrity Plan (NIP). The main objective of IIM is to act as a machinery in the implementation of the NIP towards developing a nation that is of high integrity, resilient and that embraces universal good values.”

The key roles of the institute are: to conduct research related to the integrity of institutions and that of the community; to organise conferences, seminars and forums; to elicit opinions from various sectors on the progress made or on the obstacles faced in implementing integrity; to publish and circulate printed materials as well as formulating and implementing training and educational programmes; to recommend new policies for the enhancement of integrity and ethics; and to advise the Government on strategies and programmes in enhancing integrity.

The voice of cynicism is growing loud and people are questioning the functions of this department, more so if it has no bite. MACC has strongly objected to it, with Dzulkifli labelling it a waste of public funds.

Who can blame the graft buster for being disgruntled? His investigators are overworked and the department understaffed, under budget and now, suddenly, the MACC learns that a new department is to be set up.

If it has no powers and does not concern the MACC, then it is on its way to being another government department which publishes more reports that nobody reads and which will most likely end up gathering dust.

Dzulkifli, who is hard-pressed to secure a heftier budget for his department, has publicly objected to the setting up of JITN, saying the funds could be better used to enhance current enforcement agencies and the wellbeing of its staff.

“What needs to be done is improve and strengthen the laws, human resources and welfare of existing agencies.

“The Government should oversee the welfare of law enforcers. Go and see the conditions of police barracks. They are poorly maintained,” he said.

Dzulkifli urged the Government to re-examine the salaries and housing schemes of law enforcers.

“If we want to decrease corruption and abuse of power in enforcement agencies, the problem will not be solved if law enforcers do not have their welfare taken care of.

“I will defend them (law enforcers) when needed, and take action against them (if they do wrong).

“But we also need to see the state of their welfare,” he told reporters at a corruption-free pledge signing ceremony in Sungai Petani recently.

“Forming a new department will be costly and require hiring new staff. Their scope of duties will be similar to (that of) other law enforcers,” he added.

And even in less-than-ideal circumstances, the MACC has continued with its crime-busting duty, its stats backing up its hard work. Up to last month this year alone, the commission has arrested 728 individuals, including 349 civil servants, 215 members of the public and 151 from the private sector.

So far, 316 people have been accused of corrupt practices this year. Nearly half of them – 155 individuals – are from the civil service. Last year, only 113 civil servants had the long arm of the law catch up with them.

MACC statistics reveal that 1,629 cases (up to last month this year) involved civil servants, compared to 2,008 the whole of last year, with 654 cases concerning members of the public and 174 involving those from the private sector.

Until September this year, 432 investigation papers were opened against civil servants, compared to 526 last year. Half of that figure – 215 – implicated members of the public, 102 members of the private sector, and seven from other categories, including politics.

Up until last month, 756 investigation papers were opened.

Low said the Cabinet has given the green light for the setting-up of JITN to serve as a coordinating body to lead transformational changes in the public and private sectors.

He said the department would focus on good governance, integrity and human rights. How it will co-exist with Suhakam (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia) is something which needs explaining.

JITN received the Cabinet’s nod on July 28, and is currently under review by the Public Service Department pending final approval. The department was previously a division under Low in the Prime Minister’s Department.

There isn’t much the MACC can do now since the Cabinet has already approved the move.

But what the Government should consider doing is to beef up the MACC where manpower and resources are concerned, given the flurry of cases flying its way.

By Wong Chun Wai The Star

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group’s managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.
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Zahid: Peter Anthony’s arrest not politically motivated

Shafie’s ‘key ally’ arrested

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