On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Zeroing in on the middle class

But this is a group that is not easy to please. If they have their way, they would want to have personal taxes reduced. I would want to pay less to the taxman too, but it is also about time that we wake up to the reality of having the consumption-based goods and services taxes (GST) implemented.

It may not be politically savvy to introduce the GST prior to the general election but the fact is the current tax base is simply too narrow. Just over a million people are now paying personal income tax in a country of over 27 million people.

Through the GST, the tax net would be wider and those who spend on more pricey items would just have to pay for them. An ordinary wage-earner buying economy rice or roti canai won’t have to pay GST, for sure.

But if you buy a Louis Vuitton bag in KL, then it’s only right that you pay a hefty GST bill, and help the government raise its tax revenue. If we want to encourage tourism, we just have to follow what other countries are doing – limiting GST only to our citizens. Tourists, even if they are rich sheikhs, can apply for tax refunds at the airport.

That’s how GST works, but there is a general election ahead. The government does not want to be in a defensive mode, where it has to explain how GST works.

We are always looking to pay less while we expect the government to spend more to boost the economy, or even give away monetary goodies to spur spending.

When the government spends, it has to look for money. Currency speculator George Soros is surely not a good option.

Reducing by one percentage point for those with chargeable income between RM2,500 and RM50,000, as proposed in the Budget, plus the other tax reliefs, also mean that only 1.7 million people will now pay taxes compared with the workforce of 12 million.

Beyond the statistics, it is clear that the government is well aware that the middle income group has found itself in a sandwich position. They are the ones who feel the rising cost of living the most, and any effort to reduce their tax burden should be lauded.

It is this group that the Budget wants to target. The rich can take care of themselves and the poor has been taken care of.

The higher income group would still benefit, in some way, as regardless of how much one earns, the existing tax relief for their children’s education has been increased to RM6,000 from RM4,000 per child.

But it is the financially distressed wage earners, especially those in the lower earning bracket, who are doing their best to stretch the ringgit. After paying for their home rentals, car or motorbike loans and food expenses, there is nothing left, really. Saving itself is difficult, let alone finding the downpayment for the first home.

The affordable houses scheme would be essential to allow this group of urbanites to believe that they can own houses. The government must make it work.

Another measure that is targeted at this group is the 50% discount on KTM fares for Malaysians earning RM3,000 and below monthly. I would have preferred the government to just provide a blanket free KTM ride during peak hours in the mornings and evenings.

I am curious to see how KTM plans to carry out the registration of commuters who qualify and give them the special discount cards. If it is not effectively carried out, due to practical logistic issues, this scheme is definitely open to abuse. So the government might as well just provide free rides.

The whining upper middle class won’t be joining the queues at the crowded KTM stations, that’s for sure. It will still be the same KTM passengers who want to cut down on their financial expenses because they live in the outer city zones or even in Negri Sembilan but travel daily to Kuala Lumpur to work or to study.

The 70 new 1Malaysia Clinics will surely be welcomed as they would be a great help to the urban poor. Furthermore, 350 clinics would be upgraded and an additional 150 dialysis machines will be made available in government haemodialysis centres nationwide. All measures to improve healthcare facilities for the masses are surely welcomed.

But there is one area where the whining from the Malaysian middle class is legitimate – the crime problem.

We have repealed laws such as the Emer­gency Ordinance because the intelligentsia in urban areas demanded it. But the reality is that many of the Simpang Renggam graduates are now on the streets and the police cannot find these crooks because their hands are tied.

Budget 2013 has allocated for 496 CCTV cameras to be installed in 25 local authorities nationwide to prevent street crime in urban areas. This is like a drop in the ocean and surely insufficient.

We should have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of these cameras put up, as in London, to keep an eye on potential criminals.

As I write this, I have just been informed that my colleague had his new car hijacked by two men while he was on his way home with his wife and son in Subang Jaya. Incidents like this point to the necessity of having more of our policemen out on patrol.

The proposal to increase the number of police personnel for patrolling and combating crime is in the right direction. The police also have to review how police reports are made so that a person making a simple report about a car accident, or a lost handbag, does not have to compete with people making reports for serious offences. We need to put our policemen on the streets, not behind desks.

Let us consider making Rela, the civil service group, and volunteer policemen take over simple tasks like crowd and traffic control. The Budget has proposed an additional 10,000 officers for the Police Volunteer Reserve force. This is not something new but it will definitely reduce the unnecessary burden on the police.