Budget 2022: The devil is in the details

When Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz presented Budget 2022 last Friday  (29 October), it was my first time in 16 years not being inside the Parliament precinct, either as aide or as parliamentarian.  

Each time the Budget was presented throughout those years, I kept reminding the public a simple fact: the speech read by the minister is NOT the budget per se.

The speech is just the political message the minister and the government would like you to hear.

Typically, the minister’s speech writers will try to touch the hearts and minds of audience – the rating agencies, ethnic lobbies, business groups – in the hope that all of these varied interest groups, however contradictory they may be, feel important and satisfied.   

The actual documents

One thing that frustrates me a lot is that most politicians and media practitioners, even many financial analysts, couldn’t be bothered to read the fine print in the actual Budget documents.

My first experience with Budget presentation was in December 1999. As Teresa Kok’s aide when she was first elected as Seputeh Member of Parliament, I had to carry volumes of those documents from the MP’s desk in the Parliament back to her office. My library still keeps those documents.

When I became an MP in 2008, each time the minister read his Budget speech, which typically took about two hours, I would focus on the 500-page or so Estimated Federal Expenditure which detailed the government’s spending by ministries.

Each year, the only time Parliament sits on a Friday is Budget day. I would then spend Saturday deep-diving the documents.

I am glad that some fellow MPs such as Tony Pua and Dr Ong Kian Ming as well as colleagues in the media like Andrew Ong of Malaysiakini poured in hours of their time to understand the Estimated Expenditure documents year in, year out.    

Only in recent years the Finance Ministry put most of the Budget documents online.

However, the ministry has yet to share the Senarai Perjawatan Di Kementerian Dan Jabatan Dalam Anggaran Perbelanjaan Persekutuan (a list of government positions) on its website, alongside other documents such as Economic Outlook and Fiscal Outlook And Federal Government Revenue Estimates.

The Senarai Perjawatan should be read in conjunction with the Estimated Expenditure. One can only know how the money is spent if one is fully informed of how the government organises its own staffing. People who are interested in civil service reforms and ways to enhance the capacity of the government should start from here.

Fortunately, in recent years, Parliament has uploaded most documents tabled in the House. Hence, the 2021’s Senarai Perjawatan can be found on the Parliament’s website.  

I welcome the finance minister’s announcement that the government intends to introduce the Fiscal Responsibility Act in 2022. It is aimed at improving governance, accountability and transparency in the country’s fiscal management to ensure fiscal sustainability and support macroeconomic stability.

It is one of the many ideas to improve governance proposed by the then Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng when Pakatan Harapan was government in 2019. 

The fine details

However, such an important parliamentary legislation doesn’t mean much if we – including financial analysts – pay no attention to the fine details of the Budget. Forming views on the government’s Budget based on the Finance Minister’s speech is missing the point.

Also, the Parliament has no proper committee system and is not empowered to scrutinise the Budget in a detailed fashion.

For years I have been saying that when every ministry is scrutinised by parliamentary committees, and each ministry’s annual budget is debated in the committees in a detailed “line item” manner, only then there would be fiscal responsibility across the government.

In fact, these parliamentary committees’ meetings should be telecast live on digital platforms.

Less noise, more substance

I am disappointed that the Parliament is not provided with more resources to support a rapid expansion of parliamentary committees to scrutinise the ministries.

Parliament’s budget is a meagre RM148,382,900 (RM148 million) compared to a whopping Prime Minister’s Department’s allocation of RM12,201,127,100 (RM12 billion)! Perhaps someone missed the memo that the era of Malaysia’s “presidential Prime Minister” is over.

Even the National Audit Department runs a budget of RM154,467,500 (RM154 million) – slightly bigger than Parliament’s, and the department is placed under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Department. It should be under the Parliament’s control.

One of the institutional innovations during Pakatan Harapan’s era was Pusat Governans, Integriti dan Antirasuah Nasional or the Governance, Integrity and Anti-Corruption Centre (GIACC).

It plays a significant role during the Pakatan Harapan era with its monthly committee meeting discuss measures on improving governance and curbing corruption.

After the Sheraton coup of 2020, GIACC was given less attention. Nonetheless, it is provided with a sizable RM38 million budget for a small entity, which is commendable. But again, it is still under the care of the Prime Minister’s Department. The agency should be put under Parliament’s control.

It is my sincere hope that Malaysia’s public discourse on the budget would see more debates about the actual details and less about noises which have nothing to do with the actual details.

All the while, most of us have been debating the minister’s speech which is nothing more than the government’s feel-good factor instead of focusing on the devil in the details.

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