Tengku Zafrul’s political ambitions distract from ministerial duties

Hebahkan !!!

He claimed not to be a politician when sworn in as senator prior to being named finance minister in Muhyiddin Yassin’s government on March 9, 2020.

“The thinking was (that) they wanted a technocrat,” Tengku Zafrul Aziz was quoted as saying in another interview three months later.

At the time, it seemed to show bold, courageous and out-of-the-box thinking on the part of the then prime minister. Such a change from a country so used to one man occupying both the roles of premier and finance minister, which left the treasury prone to abuse.

With the pandemic just unfolding, it appeared that Muhyiddin was prepared to put aside the partisan politics by which he was appointed to install a technocrat with specialised knowledge to a key portfolio.

Two years on, however, it appears that Tengku Zafrul lacks the requisite attributes to steer the country out of the muck it languishes in.

Yes, the economy grew by 5% in Q1 of 2022, but this was largely on the back of rising domestic demand driven in no small part by a staggering net EPF withdrawal of RM58.2 billion in 2021 and other cash handouts given to the public.

On the other hand, government debt has risen by RM320 billion, the ringgit’s value is plummeting, inflation is on the rise again, prices for food and consumer goods are climbing steeply, wages are declining, unemployment is high, and the rakyat is falling deeper into debt.

Despite this, we have yet to hear Tengku Zafrul articulate any viable fiscal policy to reverse these trends.

Come October, this government will almost certainly have to fall back on cash handouts to stimulate the economy. Surely two years on the job is long enough for Tengku Zafrul to advise the prime minister that a policy of cash handouts premised on borrowings is unsustainable.

Properly, the finance minister should train his mind on more fundamental questions. For example:

  • How can the government pare down its RM1.2 trillion debt?
  • What strategies can be put in place to reduce household debt?
  • How do we reverse declining private and public investments?

Do not hold your breath, though. Our finance minister has yet to explain why he agreed to settle the 1MDB-Goldman Sachs scandal for US$2.5 billion in July 2020 despite the country being cheated of more than US$6.5 billion!

Instead of putting his technocratic mind to these matters, he appears to be harbouring political ambitions, with rumours rife that he will emerge as an Umno candidate to contest a seat in GE15.

Rather than quash such talk, Tengku Zafrul appears busy trying to secure the safest seat available, presumably in the hope of retaining his ministerial position if Umno/BN is returned to power.

Those machinations seem to have caused him to set his sights on Kuala Selangor, either attracted to fireflies or the prospect of an easy open race after sitting Amanah MP Dzulkefly Ahmad announced his retirement from politics early this month.

Why else would Tengku Zafrul announce out of the blue at the beginning of the week the finance ministry’s adoption of Kuala Selangor for development as well as the building of an East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) station in Puncak Alam?

At best, that announcement showed an abject failure on his part to comprehend the limits of his job responsibility.

First and foremost, ECRL alignment, construction and management are matters within the purview of the Land Public Transport Agency, which falls under the transport ministry, not the treasury.

As finance minister, Tengku Zafrul ought to concern himself with explaining to the public the viability of the project, in particular how much it will cost, how it will be financed and how much debt the government will incur.

That aside, who has ever heard of any ministry singling out a particular district for development?

How can the finance ministry play foster parent to any particular district or town? Tax dollars are drawn from all over the country and, as a general rule, development must be carried out evenly across its length and breath.

Tengku Zafrul must immediately explain to the public how the decision was arrived at. What were the criteria used?

Perhaps, in particular instances, development expenditure may be necessary to lift the rakyat from a certain geographical area out of poverty.

If so, why was Kuala Selangor, with a median household income of RM5,855, chosen? Why not Pitas in Sabah, where the median is RM1,999, or Julau, Sarawak, where it is RM2,488? Should the MoF not help the poorest districts in rural areas first before others?

The only other explanation is that our technocrat finance minister is threatening to use tax dollars to fulfil his newly acquired political ambitions, and is prepared to trample on the toes of colleagues to achieve his goals.

Ibrahim M Ahmad is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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