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Sunday, June 4, 2017

What concerns Malaysians most ?

Supermarket shopping food

THE biggest concern among Malaysians, as we head towards the general election, is the cost of living. It’s as simple as that.

There have been plenty of political and religious side shows, but for many Malaysians, regardless of race, settling the many bills each month is what worries them the most.

Although Malaysia remains one of the cheapest countries to live in, its citizens have been spoilt for too long.

We are so used to having so many food items subsidised, including sugar, at one time, to the point that some of us have had difficulties adjusting ourselves.

Our neighbours still come to Malaysia to buy petrol, because ours is still cheaper than theirs.

But, as in any elections, politicians will always promise the heavens to get our votes. One of the promises, we have already heard, is the abolishment of the Goods and Services Tax.

No doubt that doing away with GST would appeal to voters, but seriously, even the opposition politicians calling for this are aware that it is a counter-productive move.

In the words of Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim, a highly-respected retired government servant, “it is too much of a fairy tale.”

The danger, of course, is that populist electoral pledges are always appealing, even if they are not rational.

Malaysia cannot depend on just about two million tax payers to foot the bill in a country of over 30 million people. It is unfair and unsustainable.

Taxing consumption gives more stability to revenue because income tax is regarded as highly volatile, as it depends very much on the ups and downs of businesses, according to Mohd Sheriff. When the market is soft, revenue collection always sees a dip.

For the government, which has already been criticised for having such a huge civil service, without GST, it could even mean its workers may not get paid when there is a downturn in the economy.

In the case of Malaysia, we have lost a substantial amount of revenue following the drop in oil price.

So, when politicians make promises, claiming plugging leakages is sufficient to end GST, it is really far-fetched and irresponsible.

The Malaysian tax system needs to continue to be more consumption-oriented to make it recession-proof, and, more importantly, the tax net just has to be widened. The bottom line is that, it is grossly unfair for two million people to shoulder the burden.

The government has done the right thing by widening the tax base and narrowing the fiscal deficit. The move to implement GST, introduced in 2014, has been proven right.

GST is needed to provide a strong substitute as a tax consumption capable of off-setting revenue loss from personal and corporate tax.

Beginning next month, India will join nearly 160 countries, including Malaysia, in introducing GST. Like Malaysia, when GST was first introduced, plenty of loud grumblings and doubts have rolled out.

Unlike Malaysia’s flat 6% across the board, India is introducing a more complicated four-tier GST tax structure of 5%, 12%, 18% and 28%, with lower rates for essential items and highest for luxury and demerits goods that would also attract additional cess. In Singapore, GST was introduced on April 1, 1994, at 3%. The rate was increased to 4% in 2003, then 5% in 2004. It was raised to 7% on July 1, 2007.

Some politicians came under fire recently for purportedly calling for the abolishment of GST, however, some others clarified that they had merely called for a reduction in the tax’s percentage.

Another top opposition politician has come out as the strongest opponent of GST, reportedly saying the claim that Malaysia needs GST is false.

Some other politicians have described GST as regressive, but have not come out with clear ideas on how it should be tackled.

Nonetheless, the ruling party should not make light of these electoral promises.

For many in the urban middle class, they feel the squeeze the most.

They have struggled against the rising cost of living, paying house and car loans, and earning deep levels of debt, as one report aptly put.

The middle class, consisting of over 40% of Malaysians, is also in the income tax bracket, it must be noted.

Last year, an economist was quoted saying that 2016 was a year of a shrinking urban middle class and a happy upper class.

Shankar Chelliah, an associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, said that the Malaysian middle class shrank in metropolitan centres across the country, and that most of its members would end the year almost 40% poorer than they were in 2015.

He said this would be due to the withdrawal of cooking oil and sugar subsidies, depreciation of the ringgit, decrease in foreign inflows and increase in outflows, among other factors.

For many in this middle class range who do not qualify for BR1M handouts, the government clearly has to come up with a range of programmes which can relieve them of these burdens.

It isn’t race or religious issues that will appeal to voters – they want to know how they can lead better lives, and if the opposition thinks contentious issues will translate into votes, they will be in for a surprise.

It is true that the heartland will continue to deliver the crucial votes, and the ruling party will benefit from this, but Malaysia has also become more urban and more connected.

At the end of the day, it is the bread and butter issues that matter most. Let’s hear some solid ideas and programmes which will reduce the burden of Malaysians.

By Wong Chun Wai On the beat, The Star

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group's managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.

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