THE 2017 Budget will be unveiled against the backdrop of various domestic and external challenges such as sluggish global economy, subdued crude oil prices, weaker ringgit, rising cost of living and affordable housing.

The rakyat are hoping that despite these challenges, the Govern­ment will allocate its revenue for next year in a wise and pragmatic manner. The crux of the current issues is the hardship faced by the bottom 40% (B40) of households in the country.

Not only are these people in the lower household income bracket of below RM3,000 a month but they are also in perpetual debt, cannot afford to own a house nor provide higher education for their children and some do not hold proper or permanent jobs.

Malaysia needs to continue focusing not just on rural but also urban poverty. The annual government budget must therefore provide an adequate social safety net to the vulnerable groups in addition to existing programmes such as BR1M.

The B40 group should be given greater access to affordable homes, stable jobs, better education and skills-training to improve their standard of living.

Budget 2017 should also give attention to the Middle 40% (M40) income group, with monthly household income of between RM3,000 and RM9,000, because these people are big consumers in the economy due to their substantial size and purchasing power.

Wage increases that fail to keep up with inflation over the years have resulted in a decline in their real wages.

The M40 group now have to pay a lot more for healthcare, education, childcare and housing. Some have also found themselves in the B40 group.

The Government needs to reduce the financial burden of the M40 group who are not eligible for BR1M so that their purchasing power will be strengthened and, in turn, contribute to the economic growth.

Their burden can be reduced through lower income tax rates and increases in tax reliefs and tax rebates.

Reducing their monthly fixed payments, such as on broadband and other charges, should be done and a special allowance given to tide them over the difficult period.

Owning homes is a top concern among Malaysians today and it is incumbent that the Government take initiatives to provide more affordable homes by identifying suitable government land and locations for such purposes.

Addressing food supply is another matter. Greater supply of locally produced food is seriously needed to ease the cost of living and reduce the food import bill, especially with the current weak ringgit.

Households in the urban areas should be encouraged to grow their own vegetables, herbs and fruits for their own consumption.

It is also timely for the Government to provide incentives for Malaysians to buy local products, in doing so reducing high consumption of imported goods and assisting local producers.

There are also about 200,000 unemployed graduates today and the number is expected to rise as companies are not active in hiring new employees due to the challenging economic climate.

Budget 2017 should allocate funds for retraining them, including in English language skills, to enhance their employability as well as provide a soft loan scheme for them to be involved in business.

Workplace safety is also of paramount importance. Most of the personal protective equipment (PPE) used to minimise occupational accidents are imported and have become more expensive with the current exchange rate.

The 2017 Budget should contain proposals to waive or at least reduce the import duty.

The Government could also provide incentives to encourage local production of face masks, hard hats, ear plugs, respirators, gloves, safety harnesses, high visibility clothing and others, making these more affordable.

In the area of road safety, the Government should allocate adequate funds to intensify road upgrading and repair, improving signage, awareness campaigns, road safety research and better enforcement.

While we understand that it is hard to contain increases in prices of goods and services due to factors like GST and prevailing economic conditions, we hope the Government will ensure prudence, transparency and full accountability in its spending, especially on government operations such as procurement and claims by departments and agencies.

Year after year, the Auditor-General’s Report shows weaknesses in financial management. These should be addressed thoroughly so that there are no leakages and more revenue can be channelled to improve infrastructure, schools, hospitals and the rakyat’s wellbeing.

Having good economic growth with a large proportion of lower income people and wide income disparity reflects inefficiency of the country’s economic management and uneven distribution of wealth.

Failing to bridge the income gap among the rakyat may derail the country’s plans and aspiration to see its multi-racial population living harmoniously.

The longer people live in hardship or without proper jobs, the more likely there will be social disorder and criminal activities.

The Government’s move in allowing the public to air their suggestions for Budget 2017 is commendable.

I hope the constructive views and suggestions offered by the rakyat and organisations are thoroughly studied and, if feasible, implemented.

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