KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 26 — The Dewan Rakyat today passed the second reading of Budget 2021 that only allocated a minuscule increase for health, even as Malaysia battles a new surge of Covid-19 cases, with 10,000 infections reported in just eight days.
Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz did not announce any amendments to the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) RM31.9 billion budget that had only increased by 4.3 per cent from its RM30.6 billion allocation in the 2020 budget.
The Supply Bill 2021 was passed at the policy stage — which is when MPs decide whether they agree with the main purpose of the Bill — through a voice vote, the first vote for the Bill, as only 13 MPs stood up when a bloc vote was called, falling short of the minimum 15 MPs required for the process.
Zafrul announced during his winding-up speech on Budget 2021 at the Dewan Rakyat today about the implementation of an automatic moratorium on loan repayments for those in the bottom 40 per cent (B40) and for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Those from the middle 40 per cent (M40) only have to make a self-declaration without any documentation to get their loan moratoriums extended.
The finance minister also announced that Employees Provident Fund’s (EPF) i-Sinar programme — which previously allowed up to two million eligible active contributors to withdraw up to RM9,000 from their Account 1 — has been expanded to cover all EPF members who suffered income losses, with the withdrawal limit raised to RM10,000. This means i-Sinar is now open to eight million eligible EPF contributors.
These were two key demands made by several Umno lawmakers in exchange for their conditional support for the budget, especially former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is the Barisan Nasional Backbenchers Club chairperson, during his debate on Budget 2021.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) had six key recommendations for Budget 2021. Under health, the Opposition pact called for an increase to MOH’s resources for Covid-19 and non-communicable diseases (NCDs); diverse candidate vaccine acquisition and deployment for the population at risk; compensating frontliners fairly and absorbing contract officers into permanent posts; increasing the number of temporary health care workers, including nurses, sanitising staff, and contact tracers; and a special allocation to tackle Covid-19 in Sabah.
The finance minister only conceded to the last item, as Zafrul announced today that a total of RM50 million will be allocated to Sabah to use under the Covid-19 Fund (KWC) in December 2020 to help with the state’s Covid-19 situation.
Despite widespread outrage exploding almost immediately after Budget 2021 was tabled in Parliament on November 6 — when CodeBlue revealed that massive cuts were made to public health services that cover NCDs like nephrology (77.61 per cent), cardiothoracic (66.70 per cent), and radiotherapy and oncology (58.49 per cent) — PH failed to capitalise on the public momentum against the proposed government budget.
Unlike prominent Umno backbenchers such as Najib, who has repeatedly hammered on social media about loan moratorium extensions and allowing EPF withdrawals of up to RM10,000, PH did not have a coherent campaign with specific and measurable demands for Budget 2021.
Aside from roundly criticising the initial RM85.5 million allocation for the Special Affairs Department (JASA) — Zafrul later announced today that JASA’s budget would be cut, but did not specify the quantum — PH lawmakers, including former Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad, had largely refrained from calling for specific changes to MOH’s budget. Neither did they specify the sum which they thought MOH should get, amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and various PH lawmakers had raised concerns about the shift of allocations for drugs supplies out of individual clinical departments during their Budget 2021 debates — amid Parliament rules limiting debate time — few PH leaders, except perhaps for backbenchers like Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii, consistently made health demands for the budget on their social media platforms in the past three weeks.
MOH received RM31.9 billion for Budget 2021, comprising 9.9 per cent of the total federal budget, lower as compared to last year’s budget of a 10.3 per cent allocation.
“You have only given 9.9 per cent. Minus contact workers, Minister, [you are] only giving 9.4 per cent,” Dzulkefly said while Tengku Zafrul was winding up Budget 2021.
“Following the ratio, we need to strengthen health. But, Minister, it looks disappointing. We need to enhance, we need to strengthen the whole health sector that not only needs Covid but non-Covid.
“Not just reactive, but also plans that are sustainable and long term. This is a failure,” the former health minister said.
Tengku Zafrul defended the budget by saying that the government has already given an allocation of RM31.9 billion to MOH, an increase by RM1.3 billion from this year.
“The government has allocated RM1.8 billion under KWC for 2020 and 2021, including another RM1 billion to overcome the third wave [of Covid-19],” the finance minister added.
The second reading of the Supply Bill is the first opportunity for MPs to raise their concerns and point out the areas where they think changes should be made. It will be then voted on before moving to the committee stage. At the committee stage, small amendments to the Bill can be made and voted for at the third reading.
When a bloc vote was called, just 13 out of 220 MPs stood up, even though the ruling Perikatan Nasional led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had a razor-thin majority in the House with only 112 MPs.
Malaysiakini reported that former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Dzulkefly were among the Pejuang and Amanah MPs who stood up to support the bloc vote, which would require votes to be counted, as well as one DAP lawmaker, Mas Gading MP Mordi Bimol, and one PKR lawmaker, Pasir Gudang MP Hassan Karim.