Unprecedented and surprising events are unfolding as the annual budget is debated in Parliament.
In October, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong advised MPs to prioritise the welfare of the people and approve Budget 2021. It raised eyebrows. At the beginning of this month, he called on the government to consider all suggestions by the public and formulate a budget that was inclusive and comprehensive. He said the budget should focus on the wellbeing of the people, curbing the spread of Covid-19 and economic recovery.
Yesterday, even Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador urged MPs to approve the budget to enable police to maintain security and public order.
On Nov 24, 20 Barisan Nasional MPs who are ministers and deputy ministers banded together to declare their support for Budget 2021 tabled by the Muhyiddin Yassin government.
And the Federal Territory Information Department has come under fire for sending its vans to announce the benefits of Budget 2021 at public places such as wet markets.
The Perikatan Nasional (PN) government appears to have resorted to various methods to convince the people that this is a budget in their interest. For instance, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said in the middle of the month that the government would not be able to pay the salaries of civil servants and give assistance to frontliners in the fight against Covid-19 if Budget 2021 was not approved.
Either the PN government is hoping to create the impression that MPs opposing the budget do not have the interest of the people at heart or to get the public to pressure their MPs to vote for the budget, or both. Why else should it try to convince the people on the street when it is the MPs who vote on it?
In all my years of journalism, I’ve not come across ministers from any party in the ruling coalition – and that too a section of them – banding together to say they support the budget. I also know that such actions are not spontaneous; they are almost always orchestrated.
We now hear that the voting on the budget could be delayed to enable ministers to complete answering issues raised at the Dewan Rakyat. Due to the current shortened debate times, ministers have been given only 20 minutes to say their piece so there is not much they can answer. It is, therefore, likely to make some suspect that this delay is simply to buy more time for the government – time in which to “convince” more MPs to vote for the budget.
Is all this then an indication that the wobbly government of Muhyiddin is getting more and more desperate as the days pass by?
Muhyiddin faces an existential dilemma: If he loses the budget vote, it would indicate that his government does not enjoy majority support in the Dewan Rakyat. He became prime minister by convincing the King that he has majority support in Parliament, not by the popular vote.
Pressure will then pile on him to resign, especially since his legitimacy as prime minister is even now being questioned.
Muhyiddin has so far cleverly fended off any attempt to get him to prove his majority on the Dewan Rakyat floor. One of the first things he did was to replace the speaker of the Dewan Rakyat. Unless the speaker allows the motions of no-confidence that have been proposed to be brought to a vote, nothing will come of it. And there’s no indication that the current speaker is in a hurry to put the no-confidence motions up for debate.
In the past, most ordinary people were only interested in the tabling of the budget because that is when they’ll learn what they can expect the following year, especially as to how it affects them personally in terms of taxes.
This year though, many more people are following the budget debates closely. They are not only paying attention to sums allocated to the various ministries and agencies but also openly voicing their views.
Some Malaysians are openly urging their MPs to vote against the budget as they feel there are too many problems with it or that it is unfair. I have received messages or copies of articles – some of them very well argued – as to why this budget should be rejected.
This is unprecedented too.
I am personally pleased with this new-found engagement by the public over the budget and its implications. The message being sent is that people are not going to remain quiet and allow certain groups of MPs – the elites in power – to ride roughshod over them as in the past.
They not only want a say, they also want their representatives in Parliament to speak for them and not speak for their respective parties or the government. Of course not all MPs listen to or vote in accordance with the wishes of their constituents. Many will take care of their interests first.
For instance, the 20 MPs who openly declared their support for the budget – and therefore the Muhyiddin government – know that they will lose their posts if a new government, especially one led by the opposition coalition – were to take over. Of course there is always the possibility that these MPs have taken their stand after holding deep discussions with their constituents.
Then again, we must not forget that some people – including a good number of MPs – simply want the budget defeated so that a new government can take over.
I have heard arguments that all MPs should follow the advice of the King. I am also hearing arguments that MPs will not be going against the King’s advice if they vote down the budget because the government has failed to follow the King’s advice to have an inclusive and comprehensive budget that takes into consideration the welfare of all citizens.
Right now it appears that only PPBM – led by Muhyiddin – and PAS in the PN are in full support of the budget. Indications are that Umno, which is a key player in all this and a part of the PN government, is divided; some of its MPs have said they’d back the budget, others want certain changes to be made in the budget for their support. Some Umno leaders have openly said that their MPs should be allowed to vote as they wish.
I welcome that. I think MPs should vote according to their conscience after taking into account the wishes of the voters whom they represent and the future of the nation. That will show that our MPs are maturing. That will show that our democracy is maturing.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.