Ever since the new PR government took over Penang, we have seen several populist measures introduced. On the face of it, these measures appear good. Rather than squandering funds or handing them over to cronies, benefits in cash or kind are actually handed to the rakyat. So I agree, it is better than handing them over to the cronies.
But I have a couple of reservations. These are one-off payments that don’t bring lasting benefit. They are also superficial – in that the sums handed over to each of the rakyat are too negligible to make much difference to their lives. It’s like handing bags of rice to the poor. Once the rice is finished, what then? It feels good to hand over goodies to the poor, but once we have handed over these goodies, which are used up in no time, what happens? We invariably forget about the poor – until the next occasion we start feeling generous and charitable again.
Each allocation for superficial populist gestures carries with it an “opportunity cost” – which means it deprives the state of funds for more meaningful future projects that would really empower the poor. Such projects would include affordable housing for the poor, scholarships for poor students, affordable higher education, access to affordable quality health care, literacy programmes, skills training and loans for small businesses.
We also have to get to the root of the structural problems in our society. What is it in our system of economic development that results in workers having a tough time making ends meet? Why is the gap between the rich and the poor growing larger over time?
Here’s Goh Ban Lee’s take on such populist gestures in his column in theSun earlier this month:
Indeed, if there were to be an opinion poll, it would not be a surprise if more than 70% of Penangites thought that the state government was doing a good job.
The populist gestures also helped. These included waivers of summonses related to hawkers and parking, one-off RM600 payment to religious teachers and the distribution of 5kg bags of rice to the poor.
Reports that Lim was saving the state hundreds of thousands of ringgit by staying in his parents’ house and his flying in “economy” class when he was entitled to “business” generally received accolades. Directing the local councils to grant free-parking stickers to reporters should gain Lim brownie points, at least from those in the mass media.
The announcement to allow “conversion” of leasehold land to freehold has also generated much praise.
While it is understandable for a new chief minister to indulge in some populist gestures, it is basically antithesis to good governance. Populist gestures are like free-meals; they cannot be sustained. In some cases, they are akin to selling the future for momentary gratification.
The adverse consequences of the illegal waivers of summonses have been discussed in the Local Counsel column (theSun, March 25) and need not be repeated here. Giving reporters free-parking stickers borders on corruption.
Goh Ban Lee shares my reservations about the conversion of leasehold titles to freehold: while I understand that those with leasehold land will be overjoyed to obtain freehold status, does this come at a price for future generations?
So far, the reasons for land tenure conversion have not been made public. How many titles are affected? What is the amount of land under leasehold? What is the amount of premium to be paid? What are the implications on land management?
Surely, there are good reasons for land alienation in leasehold rather than freehold. At the very least, changing leasehold to freehold will make public development projects much more expensive in the future.
William S W Lim in an article on ‘Human rights and social justice’ highlights this point in a different way:
The issue of land must clearly be analysed beyond the framework of legal status and rights of ownership. In my opinion, two vital issues must be addressed: firstly, the right of tenancy in both urban and rural areas must be recognised and safeguarded by law. Secondly, land should not be sold, but leased for a limited period, with a maximum of 99 years. This is in order for the state to repossess the land in the long term. We must recognise that land is a vital resource of the whole community. The rising values of urban land are caused by the demand and investment of the entire society. Notwithstanding the private ownership of land, the development potentials are regulated and granted by the authority. As a principle of equity and social justice, a substantial portion of the incremental values must be reclaimed for society, which has already been carried out in different ways in Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.