Catering to all segments of societyWritten by Ahmad Badri Abdullah
The 2020 Budget has been receiving a myriad of responses over its effectiveness in solving the country’s economic maladies and its ability to stimulate growth.
The nation’s budget is an important instrument and proof of the government’s earnestness in pursuing the economic and social needs and objectives of society and the people. It is reassuring on the whole to see that this budget is a step closer to the Islamic objectives (maqasid) by adopting the concept of ‘shared prosperity’ and showing in many ways that it will be pursued. Yet, there may be scope for better realisation of maqasid of syariah in certain areas.
Beyond technicalities, it is also important to gauge the budget from the lens of Islamic higher objectives (maqasid syariah) as it does not merely function as a legal mechanism, but more importantly, a guide for holistic socio-economic development.
The allocation of RM1.3 billion to the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) along with a special grant of about RM100 million for the promotion of Islam as a compassionate and peace-based religion is undeniably a mark of the government’s commitment to protection of religion and development (hifz al-deen).
Although it seems to be allocated for Islamic affairs per se, the Rahmatan lil-Alamin approach adopted by the government would actually enable harmonious interactions between Islam and other religions in Malaysia.
The Malaysian@work initiative, which aims to put Malaysians back to work, is not only commendable because it secures the Islamic objectives of property protection (hifz al-mal), but also because it supports the pivotal Quranic objective of securing human dignity (karamah insaniyyah). It is a timely policy since, last year alone, half a million Malaysians were jobless. For the same purpose, the government will also incentivise youths and firms to bolster the work market in preparation for a more challenging situation next year.
The government also took various steps to address the widening income gap by increasing the minimum wage to RM1,200 in major cities and providing various assistance for the bottom-40, and more importantly the bottom-20 of the economic strata. However, improvement in the amount and coverage of the minimum wage increase is crucial to better address the endemic income disparities in Malaysia.
Closing income gaps may not only lead to better social integration but also fulfils a salient trait of the economic system targeted by the Quran that envisions an equitable distribution of wealth: “So that it will not be a perpetual distribution among the rich from among you.” (al-Hasyr 59:7)
Despite its relevance, return-to-jobs policies need to be approached holistically to observe the unintended consequences on the family institution, a core emphasis in Islamic objectives, as women who have been focusing on their families are now compelled to enter the job market. Sufficient support systems for women workers, such as flexible working hours and childcare facilities at offices, should be enhanced.
The budget also outlines allocations for environmental initiatives which include the extension of the Green Investment Tax Allowance and Green Income Tax Exemption. There are also specific allocations for the preservation of pristine forests, as well as the peninsula’s tiger species.
While these initiatives are in line with the Islamic objective of environmental protection (hifz al-biah), they are also crucial in mitigating the dire consequences of global climate change. Nonetheless, emphasis should also be given to facilitating social-based initiatives, in contrast to a market-based approach, such as local and urban farming as well as environmental activism.
It is also important to highlight the budget’s introduction of a new category of EPF withdrawal for fertility treatment and tax relief of up to RM6,000 for fertility treatment. This is critical in addressing the threatening fall of the country’s fertility rate recorded in 2017 by the Department of Statistics. As Islam emphasises protection of progeny (hifz al-nasl), this initiative is also most welcome as Malaysia is due to become an ageing nation by 2030.
Experts have said that small and medium enterprise (SME) digitalisation is a pleasant surprise in the 2020 Budget. It is an initiative to enhance business efficiency and expand their export markets amid a challenging economic atmosphere considering the ongoing US-China trade war.
Digital transformation is indeed among the main highlights of the budget which includes the setting up of a 5G ecosystem, e-wallet promotions as well as various incentives for fintech firms and technological startups.
While both laudable and necessary, the focus on automation and technological skills among workers and students need to be supplemented by humanities education as this is likely to serve as a cultural and moral compass, helping us to be the best stewards of technology.
Nonetheless, it would be not enough to conclude that the budget fulfils basic aspects of the five essentials, namely religion, life, progeny, intellect and property. Through a more substantial approach of the maqasid, the budget needs to be analysed in light of four underpinning aspects; purposefulness, multidimensionality, interrelatedness and due observance of future consequences.
With the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 as its core purpose, it is hoped the 2020 Budget will chart a new narrative of sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development that caters to all segments of society.
The writer is a research fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Saturday 02 October 2019