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The government therefore is, it has to be said, in a tight squeeze largely of its own making. Pic by NSTP/HAZREEN MOHAMAD

IT will be no understatement to say the angst generated by two successive recent by-election losses for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) extends nationwide.

Suddenly, Sarawak PH, for example, which is in opposition at state level, seems to be on the defensive, as spokespeople representing those in the state government went to town offering their individual reasonings for why the by-election results went the way they did.

A common refrain has it that the federal government under PH has so far failed to deliver on its campaign promises. It is an axiom that political fortunes turn over how voters feel it in their pocketbooks.

If the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government was turned out in large part over voter dissatisfaction with how prices had been sharply rising while incomes had hardly moved in tandem, the new government is now in the same quandary since prices of goods have apparently not come down to any appreciable degree within the past year.

The government therefore is, it has to be said, in a tight squeeze largely of its own making.

It may not be a stretch to argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that the move to make good on one of its key promises — to scrap the Goods and Services Tax (GST) — may have been a strategic blunder of far greater consequence than so far admitted.

The government may with justification say it had not expected our public finances to be in as bad a shape as it has since discovered but it surely cannot say it had not expected them to be bad.

That being so, was not abolishing GST a rather egregious case of shooting itself in the foot? In one fell swoop, it denied itself a neat and ready stream of cash when that has been in rather short supply at the national treasury.

The replacement Sales and Services Tax (SST) has been a rather poor substitute in plugging the funding gap that GST abolishment opened up.

Much was done to demonise the GST in the run-up to the last general election. It must have been one of the most populist moves, given how most advanced economies have talked up implementing a GST regime as a progressive move.

To be sure, implementing GST anywhere often calls for expending political capital and the previous government, whatever its many faults, found the courage to do so and was already taking the political punches for it.

Malaysia must have been singularly bizarre among countries to have implemented GST, only to see that rational act nullified by a change in government!

The irony is now seeing the PH government paying the political price for keeping one big promise that failed in bringing about perhaps an even more consequential promise: that GST abolishment will result in ordinary people enjoying generally lower prices.

The removal of GST has also not brought on the promised spike in overall business activities, something the government now seeks to blame on other plausible market-driving factors.

Worse may be to come. The government, hamstrung by self-constraining fiscal moves, is now mulling “expropriation” of highway concessionaires as the way to fulfil another major election promise: removing road tolls. “Expropriation” in this case, whatever its merits may be, may send a rather troubling signal to businesses and the market about the impulses driving our current economic policy-making.

There are admittedly many other reasons why a government elected barely a year ago seems to be outliving its political honeymoon. Everyone seems to have his or her pet theory or theories.

Quite a few not unnaturally cannot abide the fact that former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, now in deep legal trouble owing to the revelations related to the 1MDB scandal, has struck a popular chord and is drawing appreciative audiences wherever he goes.

A related angst is attributed to what is perceived by some as an unholy “marriage” of convenience between Umno and Pas under the guise of forging Malay/Bumiputra political unity.

Those who decry such political chicanery forget that politics is always the art of the possible. Its drawing power may be undiminished despite the political upset of 2018.

But perhaps too great a store has been set by this and the resulting angst overblown to the point of distraction.

2018 showed that popular economic disgruntlement might well have contributed more to the defeat of BN.

That potent sentiment may yet humble PH as well. Some recalibration of the thinking behind economic policy matters may be urgently needed.

johnteo808@gmail.com

The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak

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