Dennis Ignatius: Rising prices and a still clueless government

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If living conditions don’t improve soon, the Prime Minister shouldn’t be surprised if people turn against him in the same way as they turned against his predecessors.

FMT

Ask the average Malaysian what the number one issue is for him, and he’ll very likely tell you it’s the rising cost of living. Prices are surging; income is falling. Taxes are increasing too along with utility charges and transport costs. For B40 and M40 consumers, the pain is very real and getting worse with each passing day.

When people complain, politicians are quick with glib answers. Consumers are told that the increase in water tariffs, for example, is a “good investment”. Grumble about the rising cost of basic essentials and you’ll get a lecture about how fortunate we are to have one of the lowest inflation rates in the region. Talk about the falling ringgit and they’ll go into a song and dance about the war in Ukraine. Or they’ll blame consumers for eating out too often or not shopping around enough in search of bargains.

Whatever the reasons may be, at the end of the day, it is the people not the politicians who suffer the most. What everyone wants to know is what their government is going to do to ease their burden.

After promising for over a year to bring down food prices and failing miserably, the Prime Minister has now turned to a Bersatu turncoat – Syed Abu Hussin Hafiz – to head a government committee on rising food prices and cost of living. To say it is a ridiculous move would be an understatement. It looks like he’s outsourcing what two finance ministers, an economy minister, a minister in charge of food security and a minister whose portfolio includes the cost-of-living issue were unable to do in over a year. How well do you think that’s going to turn out?

If the government needs help it would do well to listen more to people who really know how to get things done and who won’t be afraid to speak truth to power – like Ameer Ali Mydin, Managing Director of the MYDIN chain of supermarkets. Thus far his advice and his pleas for action have fallen on the deaf ears because our politicians always think they know better than everyone else.

The Prime Minister seems to love appointing committees and recruiting advisers. He already has five economic advisers, a National Action Council on Cost of Living (Naccol) and the National Economic Action Council (MTEN). What are they there for? Are they all clueless?

When will he learn that committees and advisers and gimmicks like mega sales are not a substitute for sound policies?  What is needed is structural reforms – especially the removal of monopolies which distort prices and disrupt supply chains. Soon after he came to power, the Prime Minister criticised the rice monopoly held by one of Malaysia’s biggest tycoons, but it was just for show, something to impress the masses. The rice monopoly remains in place; the price of rice continues to remain higher than neighbouring countries.

Until the government commits itself to meaningful structural reforms, all these committees and appointments must be seen for what they are – pure political theatre, empty gestures that are unlikely to make a difference. What’s worse, it’s making the government look inept and completely clueless.

Many Malaysians fervently supported Anwar Ibrahim in the hope that he would bring about meaningful change and make life better for all Malaysians. It is not happening, and people are growing increasingly disenchanted. If living conditions don’t improve soon, the Prime Minister shouldn’t be surprised if people turn against him in the same way as they turned against his predecessors. – Dennis Ignatius