On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

PM has plenty to mull over

THERE are plenty of expectations for the Ninth Malaysia Plan. After all, the Prime Minister has been telling Malaysians to look forward to the five-year development plan, which is to be unveiled in Parliament next Friday.

After all the hype, it would not be wrong to assume that many Malaysians have the perception that the 9MP would be similar to the annual Budget, where tax cuts and increases are announced.

The 9MP is a development plan for the next five years. As in past plans, not every project will be completed within the period; but more importantly, the 9MP is a not a silver bullet to end some of our economic woes.

The public, frustrated by the rise in fuel prices and the cost of living, must know that Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will not be waving a magic wand on that day.

There will be no news on tax cuts, no increase in cigarette prices, no toll price reductions, no special allowances for teachers and no bonuses for civil servants as in the usual Budget report.

But the thrust of the 9MP, the first under Abdullah's leadership, will have a tremendous impact on the country's economy. The more informed Malaysians hope to see renewed confidence among investors and a lift in the stock market, which is now one of the weakest in the region.

It may not help much in the short and middle term, even after Abdullah's speech, but the economic spillover will surely be felt as the Government is expected to spend up to RM200bil.

The Prime Minister has taken great pains to ensure Malaysians will benefit from the 9MP, which has taken about a year to put together, and by the time, he reads his speech, it would possibly be the 11th or 12th draft.

The previous prime ministers would spend about five days to finalise the details of such development plans with certain key ministers and officials before making them public but this time, Abdullah has dedicated 10 days for this task.

The details of the 9MP remain a secret. But the assumption is the broad strategies, as developing new growth areas such as modernising and developing the agricultural and biotechnology sectors to boost the economy would be emphasised.

Used to the pace of a manufacturing-based economy, many Malaysians do not see the tangible benefits of agriculture but this sector has gone beyond just planting padi and fish farming.

From deep-sea fishing to setting up global halal centres for meat to the West Asian market, to products from biotechnology, the leadership is expected to provide more support to these sectors.

It is a two-pronged approach – modernising agriculture and creating wealth and job opportunities for the rural people as well as addressing imbalances in urban-rural wealth. New zones or regions would be identified to be developed into modern agriculture and agro-based areas.

Tourism and education would likely be the other areas that Abdullah would want to see help boost the economy. We can expect to see financial commitment in these two areas.

The appointment of Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, who was very much involved in the drafting of the 9MP, as Higher Education Minister, is a clear indication of the Government's commitment to education. The Government sees knowledge as a key factor in building new businesses and industries.

There would be less talk of building schools this time but more talk on improving the quality of teaching and the curriculum at all levels to meet changing market needs.

For the people of Penang, Abdullah's home state, the surprise is almost certainly to be a second Penang bridge. The bridge will not only help the construction sector but spin off many benefits to the northern region.

A second bridge, estimated to cost RM2.6bil, is necessary as an average of 110,000 vehicles use the existing link during weekdays, with the figure going as high as 120,000 on weekends. Its optimal capacity is 80,000 vehicles.

The new link will surely boost the townships of Bandar Cassia in Batu Kawan, Bandar Perda in Bukit Mertajam and Bandar Bertam Putra in Kepala Batas.

Penang has 1.4 million people, but at least 54% now live on the mainland. Taking this into account, there are plans to use Penang as the transport hub for the northern region. Again, this could be reflected in the 9MP.

The Southern Corridor, to expand development beyond the Klang Valley, is likely to be given attention. States like Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor would surely benefit from the emphasis.

But the 9MP would not just be about operating expenses and infrastructure because much focus would be on developing human capital to improve the living standards of Malaysians.

From improving the transport system in the Klang Valley to providing comfortable homes to the lower income groups, Abdullah is expected to spend a lot of his energy on this particular endeavour.