Redistributive economic policy in the form of BR1M — Khairul Azwan Harun

JANUARY 3 — You did not fare too well in your SPM. You did good. But not enough to get attention, not enough to make it a point in your resume. You are the oldest in the family of five. So making it in the current economy means doing it yourself, paving the path yourself with no older sibling to follow the steps of. You have missed out on the vocational training your younger brothers are now taking. The skills upgrading classes for youths are available, but seem too heavy of a burden on your schedule to undertake at a time when you need to already be making money.

Previously you had tried working in Shah Alam as a low-grade mechanic in an independent car-fix garage. You worked on bumpers and ducked your head under cars all day with the expectation of getting paid late. The living standards were cramped and the journey back to kampung was always a yearly hassle. The friends you made gave you no real incentive to stay. It just was not home.

Now you are working in a local 24 hour convenience store, just a few minutes from your childhood masjid. You work night shifts from 11pm to 7am in the morning because the pay is higher; just a little above RM 1k. Family gatherings are tough to commit to because you would be drowsy and tired.

Take the scenario above and add on to it three kids, a spouse and the constant wrangling to provide for them. You could even be a single mother. This is the life that millions of us are facing. It is tough. It is unkindly brash. But these daily heroes still get up every day. They still move forward with a belief that this system, Malaysia’s system, is capable of providing them their success if they continue to work hard.

The urbanisation of our economy has inclined our job seekers to move to the city. It’s a more crowded lifestyle. Their families in turn get stretched and separated. Disappointed and homesick, these breadwinners return home dejected to have to start from square one. 

There has been a lot of discussion on BR1M recently. For those who do not depend on it, we debate on the viability of this initiative in creating an economically independent Malaysian psyche. For those who do depend on it, for the millions who live the reality we saw a hint of above, the dire necessity of which these funds are accepted make irrelevant any talk of ideological progressiveness.

But as clear-cut as the goals of BR1M may be, our addiction to politicking has made even a simple program such as BR1M a point of argument. Perhaps BR1M is Malaysia’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) to America. A straightforward policy initiative that benefits all but one that is so politicised that now we have an opposition that even talks of eradicating it.

Redistributive policies refer to an economy-wide attempt to shift wealth, income and resources to the ‘have-nots’ in order to maintain wealth equality.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently issued a major report warning that rising levels of income inequality are threatening to undermine global economic growth. One of the proposals the IMF encourages is actually direct cash handouts to the poor.

The use of cash transfers was first introduced around a decade ago when Brazil established the Bolsa Familia or "family allowance" program. Families earning below US$60 (RM270) a month were given a yellow Bolsa Familia debit card that held a set amount of money each month (roughly US$127) depending on the number of children in the home.

The results in Brazil have been dramatic. According to a 2013 study by The Institute of Applied Economic Research, Brazil has since reduced extreme poverty by 89 per cent over a decade, lifting 36 million families out of poverty. With declining infant mortality rates and rising school completion records, participants of Bolsa Familia are making strategic decisions to invest in the future of their families.

Even in Japan early this August, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved a ¥13.5 trillion initiative for cash payouts to low-income earners. According to Abe, this plan was more than just a compensation for the poor, it was “a strong economic package draft aimed at carrying out investment for the future.”

Yet in Malaysia’s effort to similarly help its low earners, there arises talk amongst the opposition to eradicate the program if in power. How we got to such irrational antagonism of anything the government is doing seems puzzling.

Perhaps Stephen Colbert, after Trump won the US Presidential election, explained it best when he said that politics was never meant to be fully consumed because we were only really meant to choose sides every few years. He joked that politics was designed to be boring so that the rest of the time we would be able to actually talk to one another, to debate maturely and not have to worry about who was on which side or what label we stood for.

For the years there wasn’t an election, we were supposed to forget about choosing which side we were on. We were meant to keep an open mind, to see both sides of any issue. For Malaysia, we have become too addicted to the poison of politicking that antagonising each other seems the norm in anything, that somehow we aren’t allowed to concede that the other side is doing something good.

In our division, polarisation and fear to one another, we become susceptible, just as America, to electing someone who can be so detrimental to the progress of our country, someone like Tun Mahathir or someone who takes orders from the former Premier that stands to take away essential initiatives such as BR1M; claiming that it is a form of bribery. What the US, Japan, Brazil and many other democratic nations outline is a commonsense reality to engage in redistributive policies. These measures are direct, quick and can very much deter us from a path of economic inequality that are likely to be the base for greater social and communal animosity. 

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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