On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Grateful for some relief, however small

The increasing cost of living is the number one topic among Malaysians. They do not care about politicians trying to rewrite Malaysian history or squabbling politicians fighting to protect their positions in the name of serving the community.

It was thus refreshing to read about the Prime Minister's immediate decision to decide that there would be no petrol, diesel and cooking gas price increase at least until the end of the year. That's fair enough.

The other decisions were road tax reductions of up to 80% from Sept 12, no toll increase for this year and next, as well as increased aid for senior citizens, the poor, and disadvantaged children.

These steps will in many ways help ease the public's burden brought on by escalating prices of consumer goods. The Consumer Price Index, which indicates the price variables, rose 2.8% during the first six months of this year. The increase would certainly have affected the purchasing power of consumers.

For the average Malaysian worker, his salary does not stretch that far these days. Apart from the usual deductions – EPF, Socso and income tax – there are also the usual bills to pay. Those with schoolgoing children also have to pay more for transportation, food and even tuition fees.

In Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru, probably the country's two most expensive cities, it is tough for someone earning RM2,000 to make ends meet.

Many of us eat at coffee shops or food courts in shopping malls, and not at upmarket eateries in Bangsar. But the prices of our kopi kau and mee goreng have gone up too.

We are told that we should shop at reject shops or the pasar malam to get the best bargain, but the fact is that's where most Malaysians do their shopping even before inflationary times. The Louis Vuitton bag is from Jalan Petaling, by the way, and not from Paris.

In the midst of these price increases, it has become fashionable to blame the retailer, the wholesaler and sometimes the consumer for the inflationary trend.

While there would be errant ones who take advantage of the situation, it would be wrong to see them as the primary causes.

There have been statements by some politicians asking hawkers or traders to absorb the increasing costs of their items. That seems illogical as they are in business to make money.

Like it or not, they have to pass it to their consumers or simply sell us a smaller portion of the char koay teow.

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's emphasis on agriculture since he took over the leadership would probably receive more urgent attention now. He is right that domestic food production must be accorded priority to cut down on our food import bill.

Buying imported foodstuff leads to outflow of the ringgit and with the hike in oil prices, naturally we have to pay more. Greater emphasis on local food production would help us reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers.

The PM is also right in saying no to prestige projects so as to reduce public sector expenditure. Expensive non-functioning projects which only benefit the developers and contractors are certainly not necessary.

For example, one state has committed a huge amount of money to build a state assembly complex, which does not meet that often. It is mind-boggling.

Meanwhile, the government should enhance enforcement to curb profiteering and hoarding.

We do not know whether oil prices will keep going up but the government, with the support of the media, certainly needs to regularly explain why the oil subsidy has to go.

It is not an easy job but the cut is necessary as over RM1bil has been literally pumped away, at the expense of Malaysian taxpayers.

In 2003, taxpayers had to bear subsidies for oil products amounting to RM6.6bil and last year, the subsidies shot up to RM11.9bil. This year, it is expected to reach RM16bil. At this rate, it is just not possible to continue.

Pak Lah has taken the initiative of providing Malaysians some early relief and we certainly look forward to his Budget speech on Sept 30, which is just weeks away.