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Analysts have lambasted Budget 2011 for neglecting key reforms and ignoring plunging foreign direct investment (FDI), and instead rely on turning Kuala Lumpur into a major metropolis with projects of grandeur. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s budget plan includes several large construction projects — such as the RM43 billion new KL MRT project, the RM5 billion 100-storey Warisan Merdeka tower and the RM26 billion KL International Financial District — and expectedly denounced by Pakatan Rakyat (PR) as an election budget that was honed to win votes over resolving fundamental economic issues.

Analysts point out that the government also appeared too fixated on big projects. “This budget has nothing about the NEM (New Economic Model). It doesn’t liberalise the economy further,” political analyst James Chin told The Malaysian Insider. “The budget should restructure the economy to attract foreign investment. But they didn’t want to rock the boat because of the election coming,” he added. There is wide speculation that Najib may call for snap polls by the first half of 2011 to capitalise on the strong economic performance and his high approval ratings, although a general election is not due until March 2013.

Budget 2011 targets a 2.8 per cent rise in spending and aims to shrink the deficit to 5.4 per cent of gross domestic product next year, from 5.6 per cent this year thanks to sustained strong growth. According to the Budget, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy is expected to grow five to six per cent in 2011 after a seven per cent expansion this year and a 1.7 per cent contraction in 2009. Chin, a Monash University professor, also lambasted the RM212 billion spending plan for not addressing the 81 per cent dive in FDI last year and pointed out that it was impossible to become a developed nation without foreign investment.

“Where is the FDI component? We can’t achieve developed status without foreign investment...and expertise,” said Chin. Private investment grew only two per cent on average between 2006 and 2010, and was expected to be 10.8 per cent of GDP this year, rising to 11.3 per cent of GDP next year. RAM Holdings group chief economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng echoed Chin’s points and said that legal and regulatory reforms were more important than building hard infrastructure to attract investors. “When you build, if you don’t undertake the reforms to enhance the quality of services and skills level to support a first class, world class operating unit, then you also fail,” said Yeah.

“You cannot say that FDI now is determined by the city. When they say people look at the city, they have already assumed that the macroeconomic policies are similar across countries, which liberalise the market,” he added. Like Chin, DAP advisor Lim Kit Siang has also noted that the Budget 2011 tabled last Friday did not reflect the objectives of the NEM to transform Malaysia from a middle income country to a high income economy, but was focused on mega projects instead. He accused Najib of trying to outdo former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, citing the 100-storey Warisan Merdeka tower that is expected to cost RM5 billion and will be the tallest tower in Malaysia upon its completion in 2015.

Kenanga Investment Bank economist Wan Suhaimi Wan Saidi pointed out that the Najib administration should focus on economic policies instead of just developing Kuala Lumpur in its bid to attract foreign investment. “The city is the facade, but the real thing is what runs the country, especially for emerging economies,” said Wan Suhaimi. “If you look at a resource-rich country like Malaysia, you have to look at the bigger picture, like how the ruling party governs the economy and how it distributes its wealth in terms of regulations,” he added. Besides the controversial Warisan Merdeka tower, Najib announced the redevelopment of the Sungei Besi Air Base and the Rubber Research Institute land in Sungai Buloh, as well as the construction of several new highways.

The economist also noted that talented human capital was crucial to transform Malaysia to a high-income economy. “They should stress on people. What is the point of having grand cities if you don’t the human resources?” asked Wan Suhaimi. Najib has announced in his Budget 2011 speech that a Talent Corporation will be set up early next year to arrest the country’s growing brain drain problem that is threatening his vision of turning Malaysia into a high-income nation by 2020. About 700,000 Malaysians are currently living abroad, with half of them in Singapore, while the rest can be found mostly in Australia, Britain and the United States.

The number of Malaysian migrants rose by more than 100-fold in a 45-year period, from 9,576 Malaysians in 1960 to 1,489,168 Malaysians in 2005, according to the World Bank. Political analyst Dr Lim Teck Ghee backed Wan Suhaimi’s views and cited the lack in local talent as Malaysia’s Achilles’ heel. “More important is producing the skilled manpower needed to man the plants and factories, especially the high value ones. This is really our Achilles' heel which no amount of beautification projects can put right,” said Lim. “Making KL and other major towns in the countries more attractive to investment is only a small part of the problem,” he added.

Companies have complained about the lack of skilled labour in Malaysia and economists have cited this problem as a hindrance in the country’s ability to attract more high-technology industries. About 80 per cent of the country’s workforce only has secondary school education. Like his peers, the Centre for Policy Initiatives director also slammed Budget 2011 — which is 2.8 per cent higher than this year’s budget total – for dismissing the country’s falling FDI and the NEM. “The 2011 Budget seems to have been prepared with the FDI issue and the NEM relegated to the sideline. But then it was clearly an election budget so what else can we expect?” said Lim.


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