To back Budget 2021 or not? Opposition caught between rock and hard place, say analysts

Budget 2021 is slated to be tabled by Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz tomorrow, the first by the Perikatan Nasional government since its formation in March. — Bernama pic
Budget 2021 is slated to be tabled by Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz tomorrow, the first by the Perikatan Nasional government since its formation in March. — Bernama pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 5 — Following advice from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong urging lawmakers to support Budget 2021, the Opposition appear almost toothless as they head into what was initially touted as Perikatan Nasional’s (PN) first litmus test in Parliament tomorrow.

Analysts who spoke to Malay Mail — despite having different views on the possible outcome of tomorrow’s tabling — were in agreement about the Opposition’s risks of being perceived negatively by the public if they were to go against the King’s advice and vote against the Budget.

However, these academics believe supporting the Budget blindly without the requisite checks and balances, under the guise of acceding to royal advice, would also leave the Opposition open to criticism for being weak-kneed and capitulating to the government.

This same group also felt that if PN’s Budget ends up receiving sizable support from the Opposition, such an outcome would only play into Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s claim of having majority support among MPs and weaken any argument disputing his legitimacy and tenure.

For Universiti Teknologi Malaysia analyst Azmi Hassan, this conundrum puts the Opposition in a tricky situation, and he suggested that they should consider abstention instead of voting against the Budget in a show of dissension while still acceding to royal advice.

“By abstaining, the Opposition does not go against the wishes of the King, and at the same time, can demonstrate that the prime minister is still in a precarious position,” the geostrategist and professor told Malay Mail.

But Azmi said lawmakers must ensure that they perform their duties as MPs to scrutinise the contents of the Budget, a move he said that comes with its own risks if the Budget is not voted through.

“When the King said do not jeopardise the Budget, I don't think His Majesty meant to vote for it blindly.

“The Opposition needs to be mindful that the debate should focus on the Budget and should not stray to other matters just to score a point against the prime minister,” he told Malay Mail.

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat agreed the Budget should be scrutinised and not voted through blindly, saying the onus to study the Budget lies with the Opposition to prove themselves as worthy alternatives to the current government.

However, he too warned that the Opposition are skating on thin ice as they try to strike a balance between appearing coherent in the court of the public opinion and adhering to royal advice.

“Unconditional support of the Budget will indirectly prove one point: The Opposition can do nothing constructively even if they hold 49 per cent of the vote.

“The Opposition must prove otherwise — that they are the alternative set of policy thinkers who provide the public with comparisons and choices; in short, the Opposition must show the meaning of professionalism in the budgetary process and their own actions in it,” the professor said.

Budget 2021 is slated to be tabled by Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz tomorrow, the first by the PN government since its formation in March.

Muhyiddin and Tengku Zafrul have both said next year’s Budget is set to be bigger than its predecessor, with the latter even revealing that more allocations would be directed towards the Health Ministry and economic recovery efforts.

Muhyiddin on Wednesday said he hoped all MPs would throw their support behind Budget 2021 for the love of the country, just days after his former allies in Pakatan Harapan (PH) met with Zafrul to provide their input.

Meanwhile, there were academics like UKM Institute of Ethnic Studies founding director Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who said he anticipated a move by the Opposition to push for higher allocations for their constituencies in Budget 2021.

He said this could be a possible tactic to benefit as much as possible from the Budget, even suggesting they request around RM3 million in allocations each, claiming it would be on par with what is given to PN MPs.

However, the professor was also pessimistic about Opposition lawmakers being able to maintain their pleas of equal funding if their requests are met.

“Once the Opposition gets what they want, there is no debate anymore about the Budget.

“If there is, it's only ‘sandiwara’ or ‘wayang’,” he told Malay Mail, using the Malay word for “drama” and “playacting”.

When asked, Shamsul Amri disagreed with the view that showing support for PN’s Budget would dent the Opposition’s support base, saying current sentiments on the ground are already divided, leaving many Malaysians unaffected by the banter between the Opposition and government lawmakers.

He explained that the public are more concerned about how the Budget would benefit them than politicians’ quibbles and infighting.

“To the rakyat, as long as the Budget is perceived as benefitting the rakyat, they (will be) happy and soon the rakyat will forget who supported whom.

“Come GE15, different songs and dances shall be played out on stage,” he quipped.

University of Malaya associate professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi agreed, saying most Malaysians viewed the advice from the King not as a direct order, but rather an apolitical recommendation within the confines and powers afforded to a constitutional monarchy.

As a result, he said parliamentarians should therefore, like the electorate, be equally mature to comprehend the disputes surrounding the Budget as basic characteristics of a democracy and not amounting to treason against the Rulers.

Awang Azman then pointed out that should an MP, or a group of lawmakers, speak out against the Budget, they are merely exercising their rights as parliamentarians, just as others have a right to join or abstain from the debate.

“However, the [negative or positive] impact of them voicing out their concerns all depends on the momentum of the day’s proceedings,” he added.

Muhyiddin’s plea for lawmakers to come together echoed the advice of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah, who late last month, after refusing to invoke a state of emergency on Muhyiddin’s advice, had called for lawmakers to support the Budget for the welfare of the country.

Sultan Abdullah had said the funds to be allocated through the Budget would be imperative to heal the country’s economy and the needs of Covid-19 frontliners.

Budget 2021 comes as the country battles the Covid-19 pandemic amid a third wave of infections, with more than a thousand new daily cases recorded over the last two days and more than 10,000 currently under treatment.

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