Women buying fish at a wet market in Klang. The International Monetary Fund has heaped praise on the government and Bank Negara Malaysia for their handling of the country’s economy and monetary policy. FILE PIC

WITH the 14th General Election (GE14) beckoning in Malay-sia in the first half of next year, election slogans assume an even greater importance in democratic polity, and Malaysia is no exception. Not that slogans can single-handedly win elections, but recent electoral history in the United States and Britain confirm that, given the right circumstances, timing and campaign strategy, they can be extremely effective and a catalyst in getting over the core message of a party or candidate.

In the immortal words of Bill Clinton in the US presidential campaign of 1992, “it’s the economy, stupid” — a campaign slogan coined by an aide that went on to become part of the US political lexicon. The slogan, albeit aided by the then-prevailing recession in the US, helped Clinton successfully unseat incumbent president George H. W. Bush.

The question that beckons: “What would or what should be the campaign slogan of Barisan Nasional in the upcoming GE14?” A slogan that would convey the defining message of BN to the Malaysian electorate!

It is no secret that Umno, the main constituent party of the ruling BN government, wants to lead the coalition to regain its two-thirds parliamentary majority in GE14. Umno vice-president and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi indeed put in a passionate campaign call to arms at the joint meeting between Umno’s three wings — Wanita, Youth and Puteri — in early December in Kuala Lumpur. His winning recipe for a landslide Umno victory would be what he called the three A’s — “Action, Action, Action” — aimed at the Umno election machinery and cadres.

Umno’s and BN’s prospects, thanks to the disarray in the main opposition pact Pakatan Harapan, which comprises DAP, PKR and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malay-sia, seem unassailable with the prize of a two-thirds parliamentary majority a more than realistic possibility. But a few months is a long time in politics.

While the International Monetary Fund rightly heaped praise on the Malaysian government and Bank Negara Malaysia for their handling of the country’s economy and monetary policy, and upwardly revising key economic indicators, such as real gross domestic product growth from an earlier projected 4.5 per cent to six per cent for this year, the sentiments in the Malaysian streets suggest that the overwhelming concern of ordinary Malaysians of all backgrounds is the cost of living.

In my many discussions with Malaysians of all walks of life over the last year, from officials to bureaucrats to bankers, teachers, small businesses, street vendors, store assistants and, perhaps the best barometer of them all, the taxi driver, the message is the same — the cost of living is outstripping the rise in wages, and the earnings gap between income groups is getting bigger.

“The ordinary Malaysian does not relate to GDP or inflation or other such indicators. All they care about is how much they earn and whether they can afford to buy food, pay their rent, mortgage and utilities at the end of each month. They want to know why the price of ikan merah, ikan kembung and ikan bilis in the local fish market has gone up by tens of ringgit,” explained one Malaysian bureaucrat.

So, should BN’s campaign slogan for GE14 emulate Clinton’s iconic formula, with its own variant: “It’s the cost of living, stupid”?

One of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s prime economic objectives in recent years has been to raise the income and prosperity of those in the B40 low-income group and M40 middle-income group, the two groups that are most vulnerable to getting left behind in free market economies.

Despite the minimum wage in Malaysia, the average monthly wages of the B40 low-income group remains low. Putrajaya, however, is right in warning that GST should not be used as a weapon of political discourse, because it is an established government revenue generator of all advanced market economies. In the Malaysian context, according to Second Finance Minister Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani, GST has cushioned Treasury revenue losses due to prolonged low global oil and commodity prices.

An encouraging sign is that BN is seemingly a listening government with the introduction of the National Action Council on the Cost of Living, chaired by Zahid. The move has been welcomed by the Federation of Malaysian Consumer Associations and Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia.

The reality is that the scope for government intervention in containing the rise in cost of living is limited primarily because Malay-sia is a free market economy, where the market shapes the prices of goods and services on the basis of supply and demand dynamics, which in turn can be dictated by external factors such as world commodity prices and US interest rates because the US dollar is still the main currency in which commodities are traded.

Where governments can intervene is to ensure competition, anti-monopolistic tendencies and a clampdown on unfair consumer practises in the economy, and of course in managing the volatility of the ringgit and a fairer distribution of wealth to all Malaysians.

Najib’s government rightly aspires for Malaysia to achieve a high-income nation status by 2020. But, if BN is creative about capturing the cost of living narrative in Malaysian politics, the ultimate riposte and a potential vote winner could be the promise and eventual introduction of a living wage (as opposed to a minimum wage), which northern European economies are now well implementing.

mushtakparker@yahoo.co.uk

The writer is an independent
London-based economist and writer

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