On The Beat
By WONG CHUN WAI
THE people had anticipated that prices of fuel would go up, but what they did not expect was the sharp 41% jump in petrol prices while diesel went up by 63%.
A gradual price increase would have been less painful but it appeared that the Government was unable to hold the spiralling RM50bil oil subsidy as global oil prices continue to shoot up.
At the same time, the tariff for electricity will also go up, which is another blow for Malaysians who will now have a really tough time juggling their monthly budget as prices of other essential items go up in tandem.
Actually, Malaysian motorists still enjoy a 30 sen subsidy and our fuel prices are still among the lowest in the region, but many salaried workers are not in the mood to listen to politicians who compare the country with Thailand and Singapore.
Singapore, which has an excellent public transport system, cannot be used as a yardstick.
Any attempt to explain the need to cut the subsidies on fuel, which will help to sustain the economy in the long term, is now regarded as apologetic in nature and is bound to go down badly.
Yet, the fact is that those leading the protests against the fuel price hikes have not been able to explain how they intend to tackle the fuel subsidy structure if they were in charge.
For Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the decision to increase the fuel prices must surely have been a burden. Less than three months after losing five states to the Opposition, he now had to make a decision that would lead to a further dip, if not dive, in his political standing.
He is already facing a tough internal battle in Umno and the latest decision will not help boost his position for sure.
Lifting a substantial part of the subsidies is the right decision, painful as it can be, but the timing for Pak Lah has not been a good one.
Obviously, he has tried to postpone the decision because of the March polls and, for strategic reasons, he could not have allowed a price hike. The consequences would have been even greater than losing five states.
In predominantly middle class Malaysia, human rights and democracy normally take a back seat in comparison to issues such as inflation, which hits the pockets of consumers, and crime.
Any attempt to launch an austerity drive from now on has to be practical and reasonable, given the hostility of the general population.
One newspaper reader has suggested that Malaysians cycle to work and even the return of trishaws. We may be celebrating World Environment Day but that is certainly ludicrous. So is asking us to plant kangkong and sawi at home.
To ask Malaysians, especially wage earners, to change their lifestyles would also be hypocritical and certainly laughable when most of us are struggling to pay off our bills with our meagre take-home pay.
The rebates promised by the Government have been received cynically, probably because most income tax payers have yet to see the return of the money they overpaid in their monthly scheduled deductions to the Inland Revenue Department.
But what Malaysians may likely want to see would be a more prudent and frugal kind of management by the Government, especially the RM13.7bil saved from the new subsidy structure.
They are asking, for example, how we can justify spending RM39mil on the angkasawan programme, especially when they had been assured that the Russians were playing for the trip in view of our purchase of the 18 Sukhoi planes. Sure, they paid RM75mil to offset the cost but, in the end, we still paid a bomb.
The Government can expect Malaysians to be less forgiving from now when they come across extravagant projects and schemes, which see little return for the country.
There is a need for a great leap forward in improving our public transport system. Users of the LRT and KTM can tell you how much they have to suffer every day.
Thus, it is good that Pak Lah has made public transport a priority on his list of plans to ease the burden of Malaysians, along with expanding the list of controlled items, cost-cutting in government departments and agencies, and increasing support for small and medium-sized industries.
If the people are expected to change their lifestyles, they, too, expect the Government to change the way taxpayers’ money are spent.