Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Problem with Flab

The problem with governments announcing that they're cutting fat is that, well, they admit that they're fat. And worse, that they've been that way for a while. So, when the Malaysian government announces the following steps:
  • 10% cut in entertainment allowances of ministers and deputy ministers
  • Halting the production of special attire made specifically for functions
  • Restricting paid holidays for ministers and deputy ministers to ASEAN and local destinations, and limiting paid holidays to one week
and in doing so, cutting some RM2 billion in costs, I tend to see it - and I think many others do as well - that:
  • Why are government officials getting entertainment allowances from RM6,000 to RM18,865 a month?
  • Why have federal revenues been going into making clothes for VIPS?
  • Paid holidays? First of all, are you kidding? And secondly, it means that before this government officials have been taking over a week on international vacations on the taxpayers bill. So much for promoting local tourism.
  • Why save 2 billion when you can save 20?
On the matter of holidays, one might say that the new measures will boost domestic tourism, which is a fair point. The only problem with that is that making them limit vacations to the area seems to be a concession rather than an incentive. Not to mention that, once again, they are paid vacations to begin with. As for entertainment allowances, fair points are also made that this allocation has two goals: 1. to provide salaries competitive to those in the private sector to encourage public service, without overburdening the amount on pensions, and 2. as an allocation for lunches with fellow diplomats, guests to the country, that sort of thing. There are complications though - first of all, let's look at Singapore, which has been known to have the highest salary in the world for a head of government. The intention is not just to have a competitive rate - the Prime Minister is also forbidden by law to take part in business ventures to ensure impartiality. The dichotomy between the government and commercial sectors does not exist in that fashion in Malaysia. As for lunches and guest treatment, I do think that it is reasonable that if Steve Jobs should visit Malaysia one should treat him well in hopes of promoting investment. But if the government is already footing the bill in some other form, every single remaining dollar in entertainment allowance should be returned, especially since this additional allocation is around three times the usual salary of a new member of the workforce with a degree.

A real example of leadership would be trying on the shoes of the people. Pay for your own vacations. Claim your governmental expenses, but pay for your own entertainment. Pay for the petrol wouldn't be an extra - it should be a must. And, though I haven't been a traditional DAP supporter, maybe just fly economy like some people we know.

[On a side note: oddly enough, I used to like the previous Chief Minister, Dr Koh Tsu Koon. Until it came out that he claimed credit for the previous state governments work producing results today - but when asked how the new DAP-led government is doing, said, "It is the people's fighting spirit and global economic conditions that determine how we perform - not so much the government." Without seeing a bit of a contradiction there.]

In the final analysis when it comes to the federal government's so-called cost-cutting measures, average Malaysians will be looking at this in the light of "If you think this is sacrifice, then you really don't understand what we are going through." A certain American President who didn't know the price of milk knows a thing or two about this. He got elected promising, "Read my lips - no new taxes!" and departed the office saying "It's the economy, stupid."

There was taxi driver on TV who said that the fuel increase has forced him to "wash my face, kiss my wife and go back to work" because he couldn't earn enough to cover costs. He is somehow unlikely to take the idea of paid vacations of his leaders as an example of being "thrifty in these difficult times". And the expectation that he would is more likely to be salt in the wound than a sign of empathy. For all of us.

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