April 8, 2010

MALAYSIA: The politics of welfare

. SELANGOR DARUL EHSAN, Malaysia / The Sun Daily / Columnists / April 8, 2010 By Himanshu Bhatt, The Sun’s Penang bureau chief ANYONE passing by a Maybank branch in Penang last weekend would have been forgiven for taking a second glance at the unusual sight there. Crowds of elderly folks could be seen making a beeline to enter the offices. Some 83,000 residents of Penang, aged 60 and above, had registered with the state’s Senior Citizens Appreciation Programme, which basically entailed that each would be eligible to receive RM100 every year by the Pakatan Rakyat state government. Most observers were taken aback by the response, even though registration had been ongoing over the past year. By Sunday, the third day of payments being given out in the inaugural scheme, more than 80% had already shown up to collect their money. And the authorities reckoned that another 20,000 who had yet to register would now be encouraged to sign up as well. Illustration by Courtesy: MySinChew What surprised most people was not just the turnout, but the reaction of the elderly who showed up to receive the money. Newspapers splashed photos of Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng being surrounded by happy people; one even had a shot of him being kissed on the cheek by a thankful old man. The Barisan Nasional (BN) jumped, and understandably so. The political mileage that the Pakatan has gotten from this programme, whether intended or not, has been significant. BN leaders reacted by deriding the scheme as a "gimmick" and a paltry contribution. State Opposition leader Datuk Azhar Ibrahim, the Umno assemblyman for Penaga, said there were still many hardcore poor who needed such money more than many senior citizens. "It is better to help the really needy rather than to hold the state’s appreciation programme which is cheap publicity," he said. The state Gerakan chairman, Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan, said giving RM100 to tens of thousands of senior citizens yearly would affect the state’s coffers, and the money should be spent on projects that could benefit Penangites. Lim scoffed at such criticism. "Don’t be sour grapes," he said. RM100 was a small amount but it was a gesture that showed to the elderly that they were appreciated, he said. "Money that has been saved from being given away as bribery is now given to the people." Lim even took a swipe that certain parties were influencing many elderly people who were made to "swallow poison" and told not to take part in the programme. While this banter between the two sides seems to have become increasingly, well, petty and even comic, there are actually huge political stakes involved. One can see the collective impact this programme is generating at the grassroots level. For it also comes on the heels of several welfare schemes that the Pakatan has trumpeted about, including its highly publicised Hardcore Poverty Eradication programme – where every family with an income of less than RM500 is given money to top up the income, and thereby be removed from the hardcore poor category. What is certain is that the Pakatan’s moves have induced the BN to also come out more aggressively to promote existing and new welfare packages for the needy, including at the federal level. Forgotten welfare programmes left idle for years are now being publicised. The BN in Penang, for example, reacted by having a ceremony to give away payments for some regular aid recipients from federal government’s welfare funds. The DAP’s state executive councillor, Phee Boon Poh, ridiculed the act, pointing out that the money was actually the recipients’ payments for the month of February. "This shows how they use people’s money for their own interest," he said. "When we do our programmes, we do not exhibit DAP, PAS or PKR flags. But when they do it, they put up Umno banners." And just when everyone thought the brouhaha was only confined within the state, the women, family and community development minister stepped into the fray. Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said that she felt "ashamed" to read of Lim giving only RM100 a year for senior citizens in Penang. And if the diatribe was not enough, she went on to shower accolades on the BN federal government. "Thank God we have a federal government and a Barisan Nasional government for that matter, to take care of the people’s welfare. If not, the poor in Penang will be starving." The exchange between the two sides is not likely to end soon. But what is certain is that – whether the programmes are done for political mileage or not – the people themselves can keep smiling and gain from this drama between two feuding political giants. [rc] Copyright© 2009 Sun Media Corporation Sdn. Bhd.