Fix the economy, say struggling new-generation voters
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 14 — The government’s talk of economic transformation and reform has little resonance with the nation’s newest batch of voters who are suffering from the erosion of spending power in the country which they feel has made it a struggle to survive and clouds their future.
Unlike the older generation of voters who were able to easily pay off a house and a car within a few years of starting work, today’s generation of young adult workers find themselves in debt before they even start working and are looking at 20-30 years to pay off a house, if they can even afford one, and as long as nine years to pay off a car.
The country is also grappling with poor purchasing power as reflected by KL’s ranking in the 2011 Prices and Wages report by Swiss bank UBS AG, placing a lowly 49 among major global cities, down from 47 in 2010.While wages have largely remained unchanged for the past two to three decades, inflation has been steadily rising, hitting 3.2 per cent last year with prices of food and beverages increasing even faster at 4.8 per cent.
A poll of young working adults by The Malaysian Insider showed that that they were concerned that the difference between wages and the cost of living had reached a critical stage, with many looking at the prospect of either meagre savings or high debt and feeling hard pressed to survive without family assistance.
Among some of the suggested actions the government take were to set minimum wage levels while capping inflation.
Rashaad Ali, 23, who works as a writer for Groupon Malaysia, said that cost of living was of paramount importance since he became a taxpayer.As a young adult, it is at the forefront of my mind especially since I started paying tax,” he said. “The immediate future is a big question mark of survival, while questionable usage of EPF funds makes me wonder for my ‘retirement’ as well. While I should put equal stock in my own ability to take care of myself, there are things that are simply out of my control which I expect my government to handle.”
Biotech graduate Phillip Tay, 27, who works as a marketing executive with a publishing house, feels that many graduates are underpaid, and that ultimately it is government who should decided on basic wage levels.
“Wages have been stagnant for way too long. There should be government enforcement, the government should raise it up,” he said.
“I graduated with a degree in biotechnology. I look at my peers... many of them barely make more money than a SPM leaver... I might as well be selling insurance,” he said. “What the government can do is come up with policies that can help address the issue of stagnant wages, prices are going up but wages aren’t. I’d vote for a government which can look into that.”
Melissa Low, 26, who works as an accountant with an European multinational in Singapore but is a registered voter, said she left Malaysia partly due to the better purchasing power across the Causeway.
“The money is better and the inflation in Malaysia is very high,” she said. “Food, clothing, branded items are all more affordable in Singapore if you earn a Singapore salary.”
Mohd Abdul Wahid Rosmat, 26, a warehouse worker in Sekinchan, Selangor, said he was feeling the effects of the country’s inflation rate keenly.
“Prices will just rise suddenly and sometimes, the price increase doesn’t make sense,” he said. “With our wages not keeping up with prices, the value of our money is shrinking.”
Rachel Tan, 23, who works as an accounts executive at an online advertising company, said young working adults are “stuck”.
“There’s poverty of a different kind,” she said. “There’s a lot more debts at this age... someone my age already has so many loans to repay even before they can own a home, once they get out of university.”
Malacca-born Mohd Fareez Azman, 25, who now lives in Shah Alam, said prices have gone completely out of kilter with salaries.
“Wages are very different from the cost of living,” he said. “Salaries should be in balance with prices, even if it’s not high, it should at least be higher than the cost of living.”
While the government has promised to cut back on subsidies under its reform programmes, some such as Yanti, a 24-year-old cook from Parit 5, Sekinchan, believed that the government needed to keep forking out subsidies and helping the poor, because many cannot cope with ever-increasing prices of daily goods.“I’ve been working as a cook for three years, but my pay is stagnant, but the prices are increasing. Both me and my husband’s combined pay does not even add up to RM3,000. How do we live?”
Ibrahim Suffian, head of the opinion research firm Merdeka Center, said the government’s rhetoric on economic transformation has little traction with the younger voters.
“Whoever can do better to address the practical needs of the younger voters and communicate this via a wider set of channels will benefit at the polls,” he said.
James Chin, head of the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Sunway in Petaling Jaya, said the cost of living would be the number one issue in the coming general election which was likely why the government has been giving out assistance such as vouchers and cash grants to low-income households.
He noted however that the public was largely cynical over the efforts and it was not sustainable over the long run.
“The government needs to address the structure of the economy,” he said. “Wages are stagnant and the cost of living has gone up. They need to reform the entire economy.”
Economists have said that inefficiency, lack of competition and an undervalued ringgit are the reasons behind higher prices and the country’s distorted purchasing power for imported goods.
The cost of the two big ticket items — houses and cars — are often prohibitive for even the majority of older workers.While the government has taken limited steps to address housing affordability, such as imposing a cap on the value of third housing loans and above, it has not tackled the exorbitant excise duties which make cars by foreign brands so unaffordable.
Taken together with the country’s relatively low salary base, the purchasing power of the average worker in KL as calculated by UBS is 60 per cent or more lower than that in Los Angeles or Sydney and only about half that of a worker in Tokyo.
With more than 30 per cent of Malaysians reportedly earning less than RM700 a month, the Najib administration has been mulling the introduction of a minimum wage but no decision has yet been reached as government officials fear it could cause higher unemployment and loss of competitiveness.
Pakatan Rakyat has also said that it is in favour of a minimum wage.
Young voters meanwhile will be scrutinising the efforts of both the ruling party and the federal opposition to restructure the economy.
“For me, I will vote a government that will continue to provide aid, to help us. It’s difficult living when everything has a price,” said Yanti.