How the Malaysian government is buying power, but fails to take care of its voters

Davey Meelker

When I was sitting at the market in little village in the jungle of East Malaysia (Borneo), a small stall caught my eye. A man was busy getting fingerprints from a women as part of a whole process with lots of forms. It ended with the man handing money over to the woman. It seemed a dubious event to me, so asked around. The answers I got was: “well, the elections are coming, so the government is handing out money.” I was bewildered that the buying of votes is performed so openly. The political party in power is spending the government’s money to buy power! I asked around and did more research, and apparently this system is widespread in Malaysia.

There are many examples of local and national election where people’s votes are being bought by tax money. Sometimes people get a television set, another time it was a sewing machine, or all other kinds of objects as mattresses, zinc roofs and even cans of sardines. There are also reports of new roads being build to villages to compete for their votes. Often people just get cash. The bribes are usually focused on the poor people. With the upcoming elections — of which nobody but the prime minister himself knows when it is going to happen giving him a huge advantage over the opposition (read more here) — this is no difference

The system of buying votes from the poor people works: the Pollster Merdeka Centres survey of February showed that almost four of the five households which earn less than €375 a month are supporting the current prime minister, Najib. This is a significant number in a country where 40% of the people earn below €750 a month. Their support is of huge importance for Najib since many people predict that it is going to be a close fought election.

Off course, this bribing comes with a price. The government is spending three billion Euros a month only on fuel and food subsidy. Najib often propagandises that he is further helping the poor by handing out cheap loans and cash handouts. He invested in a 750 million euro in cash handouts for al those households earning less than €750 a month. He is giving those people between €75 en €125 occasionally. There are speculations that the ruling party spend more than 150 million Euros only the last eleven weeks ‘in favour of the people.’

In general I have no problem with the government helping out those in need. On the contrary, I think governments all over the world have the moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. However, this does not mean that a government could shamelessly buy votes. Giving the poor money and commodities is maybe a temporary relief for them, but a government should focus on structural policy to make their lives better on the long run. This is exactly what is lacking. Today I read in Singapore newspaper, The Straits Times, that there hardly been any reform or measures worth mentioning. A report Najib just released on his three years of reign was propagandising all the money spend on the people, but barely touched upon his promised structural reforms. This had just a short mentioning in one of the 51 paragraphs.

Thus, I am wondering if giving the poor al kinds of bribes is really in their favour. If the president really wants a better life for the poor, he should give structural benefits to the people in need as disabled and unemployed. Not only when elections are coming. Moreover, to improve their lives the many billion should be invested in structural policies that, for example, stimulate the economy and create jobs so they can earn their own money. Especially now the west is fighting a financial crisis, Malaysia could take advantage by establishing an even better international competitiveness. This will lead to higher prosperity for the rich and poor alike. Yet, then the government cannot benefit anymore of the dependency of the poor, who cannot be bribed with €75…

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