On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Delivering the bread and butter

In short, political and economic stability will always be the priority of the middle class. The street protests may be about the right to demonstrate, but is also the quickest way to lose votes. 

For Middle Class Malaysia, these protests equate to traffic disruption, loss of business, inconvenience and chaos. 

An opinion poll conducted by the International Islamic University has revealed that the cost of living, social issues, the crime rate and illegal immigrants are issues that worry Malaysian voters the most. 

Despite loud criticism by the opposition against the leadership ahead of the polls, Malaysians are generally satisfied with the leadership. Only 1% of the 2,930 respondents polled in 13 states took issue with it. 

But the food bill issue, however, is not just a Malaysian issue. It has become a global issue. The Singapore Straits Times of Feb 4 front-paged Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call to Singaporeans to adjust. 

He said the concerns of Singaporeans had been heard and were being addressed, but Singaporeans needed to work together to tackle the fears. 

The opposition here in Malaysia has promised to lower the prices of essential goods, and even of petrol, if it captures the government. 

But what has driven prices up? The global price of crude oil is at a record high and this has pushed up transportation charges; the drought in Australia and snowstorms in China have affected food production; and farmers have dumped food crops for plants that cater to petrol-substitute ethanol. 

China and India, which have become more affluent, are consuming more, with food producers preferring the two gigantic markets. 

Still, even in China, overall inflation is running at a 10-year high – around 6.9% in November year-on-year with pork, a staple meat, spiking to 60% year-on-year.  

Worldwide, the financial markets are in turbulence, and the United States, the world’s largest consumer market, is heading into a recession, if it is not already in one. 

Companies listed on major stock markets, which rely heavily on the US market, find their prices dropping massively. 

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has taken early steps to plug the holes. These include the setting up of the National Price Council, which has announced a national stockpile of essential goods, such as rice and cooking oil, to ensure that prices and supply remain stable at all times. 

The council, chaired by the Prime Minister himself, will monitor, advice and oversee the Government’s price policy, competitive market structures and the efficiency of subsidy schemes. 

Not many people shared Pak Lah’s agriculture policy, which he mooted when he took over the leadership, as we are so used to fast-paced industrialisation. 

Now, he has been proven right. “Agflation”, referring specifically to rises in prices of agricultural commodities, has suddenly become a buzzword. 

Last week, he did justice in ending the decades of uncertainty faced by 913 farmers in Perak, giving them 30-year leases to the 2,903ha land they had been toiling on. 

In Kuala Kluang and Kanthan, these farmers produce some 60,000kg of vegetables a day for the folks in the Klang Valley, while in Ladang Bikam and Coldstream New Village, the mangoes, papayas, starfruit and guavas they harvest are exported to Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai and Europe. 

It is a recognition of these farmers, who make our lives easier and better with these fresh supplies of greens to our markets. 

It may seem a cliché, but Malaysians really are much luckier than many others. The cost of living is certainly almost the lowest, but the standard of living are among the highest, in the region. These two terms are often mistakenly used by many. 

Subsidies are provided for the people, from fuel to flour to education, which now make up RM40bil of the bill, which for Malaysians have become the norm.  

In other countries, including Singapore and Thailand, petrol prices often fluctuate, depending on market prices of crude oil. Again, not many Malaysian motorists are aware of this. 

It must be noted that 30% of the items used to measure inflation are priced-controlled or subsidised. More importantly, the Malaysian economy has remained healthy, helped by revenue from oil, while continuing efforts to reduce the budget deficit are on track, and external reserves remain healthy. 

Crime, as expected, ranked high on the survey. Some of the measures taken by the Government may not take off immediately, but short- and middle-term actions have been taken. 

On the Government’s part, RM8bil has been allocated to fight crime, which includes the purchase of a high-technology integrated communications system, 3,000 patrol cars and 4,000 motorcycles.  

The Government has also approved the recruitment of 60,000 police personnel over the next five years. 

The fight for the votes in the elections will be about which political party can assure the Malaysian Middle Class that it can deliver the bread and butter.