The Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has invited the public to contribute ideas in preparation of the 2017 Budget.
While the idea of what seems to emulate a participatory budgeting, will the public’s voice actually be listened to?
The PM’s move does reflect a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget, but two weeks is all Malaysians have to submit their ideas.
Would two weeks be enough to collect significant amount of feedbacks from a 38 million odd population, especially when problems are left unsolved since the last budget was announced – for example budget cuts in the education ministry or glaring poverty issues.
Says Head of Research at Inter-Pacific Research Sdn Bhd Pong Teng Siew, while it is common for central banks and the government in other countries to conduct such exercises to expand ideas, the initiative by the PM does not seem promising.
“What the country needs is long-term sustainable measures and not short-term temporary crowd pleasing efforts.
“The public can continue to voice their opinions and ideas, but how many will be entertained or addressed?” questions Pong.
He adds that as long as the government is running the country in a politically-driven manner nothing will change.
“The government needs to put aside political agendas if they really want to help the country.
“But from my observations, it does not look like they (government) are interested in putting politics aside,” says Pong.
Meanwhile, DAP Bukit Mertajam MP Steven Sim says while the PM’s move should be commended, it seems like it would end up to be just a publicity stunt.
Sim, who heads the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) that heads a participatory budget project run for two local councils in Penang, adds that participatory budgeting is not just about asking for opinions.
“As someone involved in introducing, promoting and later conducting Gender Responsive and Participatory Budgeting (GRPB) in Penang, there for several things the PM needs to know before announcing his idea.
“There needs to be access to information to allow the people to make informed decisions.
“There must be an opportunity for policy appraisal, i.e. how a budgetary decision will affect a particular goal, for example, gender equality, or social distribution,” he says.
He adds that the most vulnerable must be consulted to find out their budgetary aspirations and goals, which also means going beyond social media and onto the ground.
“In Penang, we organise focus group discussions in villages and at low cost flats to ensure as much input as possible are gathered from these groups, from women, and even children.
“The people must be allowed to continuously monitor to ensure the budget planned are adhered to and, to intervene when implementation is not achieving budgetary goals.
“Proper reporting and accounting must be done to allow evaluation of the spending at the end of the budget year,” he says.
Sim is also of the opinion that while the PM tries his hand on participatory budgeting this year, he should really walk the talk in Parliament.
“MPs are not given sufficient time to scrutinise and debate the budget.
“If MPs are not even unable to properly take part in budget debate, I wonder how much more Malaysians (get to take part) in general,” he adds.
“In my budget debate last year, I proposed for the government to establish an independent fiscal council or parliamentary budget office.
“Its role is to inform Parliament by providing independent and non-partisan analysis of the budget cycle, fiscal policy and the financial implications of proposals.
“At the moment, Opposition MPs, general public and even academics find it very difficult to access important fiscal data and information,” he says.
As it is, he says that when the opposition tables an alternative policy or budget, it is a huge challenge to cost them in absent of such an institution.
Sim then asks will the PM concede to setting up of such an institution if he is sincere about budgetary reform?
Soo Wern Jun