On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Hear the needs of the middle class, sir

The Prime Minister certainly has a tough act ahead. He has to make the contents appealing to the voters and at the same time take into account the measures that are needed to promote growth and revenue.

The reality is that dark clouds have set over Europe and the United States, and Malaysia depends on its exports to these countries. Malaysia’s growth of about 5% a year has been tremendous, given the global financial challenges, but testy waters are ahead.

Najib cannot promise too much lest the country goes bankrupt. But there is a general election looming and any practical Prime Minister must be aware that his political party needs to get re-elected.

It does not look like the elections will be in November and the fresh speculation is that it will be after the Chinese New Year celebrations, with March now regarded as a possibi­lity.

The opposition has already made promises of every kind and would probably throw in heaven as well, if it is able. That is the kind of stakes political parties have to compete for to win the hearts of the electorate. Emotions have always prevailed over minds in most democracies.

But the urban middle class is a huge segment that the PM must address in his Budget. The rural heartland, especially the Felda settlers, which forms the core of Umno support is perceived to have their interests taken care of already.

In every Budget, the common complaints are that the middle class feel that they have not gained much. Many are salaried workers who pay income tax but feel desperately short-changed.

Regarded as the “sandwich group”, many of these wage earners suffer from financial distress, having to cope with the rising cost of living.

Unlike the lower echelon, they do not qualify for low-cost housing. Also, given their income and lifestyle, they would not want to stay in low-cost flats. But affordable housing is beyond their reach, especially in urban centres. For many, the down payment is a burden in itself.

It will be this sector that the Prime Minister must address by building affordable homes – not low-cost homes but affordable homes.

The prices must be reasonable with flexible conditions to allow newly married couples and even bachelors to own these homes.

The models can range from studio apartments to three-room units, like those Singapore’s Housing Development Board has successfully implemented.

Seriously, we do not have to look further because the fact is that our neighbour down south has done a good job as far as providing affordable housing is concerned.

The Government has announced its First Home Programme (PR1MA) to cater to this middle-income group but to make the locations attractive, the federal government needs to identify its land assets in the Klang Valley, and in other states as well.

There is little point in building such affordable houses in locations far away from the city. If prime land owned by the Government are taken over by private developers, the prices of these units would be at premium and beyond the reach of many.

For many urbanites, their concerns are jobs, the cost of living, homes and safety. If these priorities are addressed, the Barisan government would have no difficulty securing their votes.

People do not want our leaders to waste time issuing guidelines on how to identify gays, or the daily dosage of nonsensical political mudslinging over the media. Over dinner tables, the conversations are about pricey food and homes, and crime on the streets.

While we grapple over the prices of our cars and the need to sustain Proton, a quick fix by the PM would be to fast-track the use of public transportation and the KTM commuter trains, which are widely used by the financially-distressed urbanites.

The PM should seriously waive the fees for public buses and KTM trains for certain zones during peak hours in the morning and evening.

School children and elders could be issued free season cards, which would greatly reduce the financial burden of urban households.

Crime is a top concern. The Government can show us its report cards with statistics that crime has gone down, but the perception is otherwise. People must feel safe. There is little point telling us we are safe when we do not feel so.

Extra allocations to the police forces have been a yearly ritual in the Budget but Malaysians want to see more policemen on the beat in crime-prone areas and tourist spots.

Community police or police volunteers, as in the United Kingdom, can be formed to take care of crowd control and paperwork at the police stations while the professional policemen tackle crime.

The civil volunteer corps, or Rela, should also be deployed in bigger numbers in neighbourhoods and the city to complement the work of the police.