By Wong Chen

Selamat Hari Merdeka to all.

Amidst global economic challenges, this Merdeka, Malaysia has some good news and reasons to celebrate.

At the time of writing this article (2nd September 2022), the Malaysian judiciary had delivered two historic and important judgments against corruption and abuses of power, sentencing the former prime minister, Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah. This September month, we are also expecting three more court decisions on high profile corruption cases involving politicians.

For better context to these rulings, we have to recall that judicial independence in Malaysia was systemically hobbled since the start of a long authoritarian rule in the 1980s. For decades, this insidious hobbling denied Malaysia the fundamental democratic doctrine of separation of powers, eroding checks and balances in government. The erosion of judiciary independence also allowed for the rise of systemic corruption and crony capitalism, including the 1MDB scandal.

When I first started practising law in the early 1990s, the Malaysian judiciary was already fully compliant to executive powers. I remember going to law school in 1988, fired up by the injustices of Operation Lalang. I also remember that I made an idealistic vow to study constitutional law with the purpose to return to fight government oppression. Well, my idealistic plan didn’t go in a straight line as I digressed into corporate law in the mid-1990s. Decades later, I find myself back to square one, in politics fighting for human rights causes, including an independent judiciary.

So while our political scene continues to be fraught with uncertainties, populated by many insincere and incompetent politicians turned frogs, the judiciary has stepped up and done the nation a great service. My sincere and deepest gratitude to Tengku Maimun and the Federal Court judges for doing what we, the politicians have failed to deliver for the rakyat post GE14. So these Merdeka rulings, truly brought tears of joy to me and more importantly give us hope that all is not lost in Malaysia.

Going forward, fighting corruption should continue to be the single highest policy priority of the nation. As a nation, we are not short on diversity of races, religions and views but we are definitely short on honest and decent politicians. Corruption is so wide spread that it is found on all sides of the political divide; so for this Merdeka, my one wish is to see an end to systemic political corruption. In supporting this goal, all politicians must regularly declare their assets and be ready to be audited based on their declarations. The office accounts of politicians too need to be fully transparent. I am happy to declare that on both fronts; my personal asset declaration and transparent office accounts, I practice what I preach.

Now, on to the subject matter of the national budget. Originally the national budget was slated to be tabled in Parliament on October 28th. However, the date was inexplicably brought forward by three weeks to October 7th. As some of you may know, I spend a lot of time on the national budget having led the PH alternative budget for many years and I am also advisor to the Leader of the Opposition on fiscal matters. I too serve as Deputy Chairman of the Special Select Committee on Finance and Economy, as well as being in the bipartisan National Recovery Council dealing with the task of post pandemic economic recovery. On the upcoming budget, I have been in touch with the Minister of Finance (MoF) Tengku Zafrul, and he assured me that a formal consultative meeting with the Opposition will take place very soon.

On matters to do with politics, I am always ready to take a combative approach, especially on fighting corruption and enhancing human rights issues. However, on economic matters, my approach is softer as it relates to the livelihood of all Malaysians. There is no requirement for political grandstanding but a great need for economic pragmatism, so to protect jobs, wages, growth and the task of re-distributing wealth.

Currently, the government is in a cashflow crunch with a RM77 billion subsidy headache. It had very recently tapped an additional RM25 billion dividend from Petronas. However, by my calculations, the government is still about RM5 to RM10 billion short in cashflow terms for this 2022 financial year.

Looking forward to budget 2023, the government will most likely face a similar cash crunch scenario next year. So for the upcoming MoF meeting, I will be bringing an agenda that focuses on reducing wastage and corruption, managing the national debt, sourcing alternative revenue, and implementing an overall fiscal responsibility system that prioritise checks and balances.

Lastly, because there is no real explanation given by the government for bringing forward the budget, there is much political talk that this budget is in fact a precursor for a snap election. Note that GE15 is only due in May 2023, so if the political talks prove correct, we could be looking at GE15 in November 2022.