YB Wong Chen
Speech on Gender Responsive Budgetting (GBR)
This is my speech on Gender Responsive Budgeting, delivered at an event organised by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, on 31st March 2022. Those who are interested in women rights and gender equality should take a long read on this.
Speech on Gender Responsive Budgetting (GBR) by YB Wong Chen 2 April 2022
1. Thank you for inviting me to speak about Gender Responsive Budgeting (“GRB”). I was told that I have the freedom to talk about any topic related to GRB and I have chosen to share my views on the Malaysian national budget and GRB.
2. Let me start by saying that GRB as a tool and policy is relatively new to my office. I would say the journey to incorporate GRB into our policy making thinking started in late 2020.
3. In particular, my former officer Alethea Wong, was very interested in it, and over the months in late 2020 to early 2021 she gently badgered me to seriously look into it. All my officers serve a two year tour of duty in my office, so when Alethea completed her two years in August 2021, my other former officer Ivan Wong picked up and completed the GRB project.
4. Which brings me to being here today, on stage to speak to you about GRB, when the credit truly belongs to the hard work of my former and current officers.
5. A bit of background about my office. My office has been involved in preparing the opposition alternative budget for a very long time. We wrote five alternative budgets; namely the 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and the 2018 budgets.
6. I am and have been, for close to decade now, the head of the policy making for keadilan and I have mentored over the years more than a hundred interns on policy making. Budget and policy making is the thing that my office does.
7. This speech on the national budget and GRB is divided into 3 parts, all of which will be discussed in the context of what is happening in Malaysia and the Malaysian Parliament.
8. In the first part, I will explain, rather simplistically, what are the duties of government and what is the link of these duties to the budget. I will also disclose my current best estimates of what percentage of allocation women are getting from the Malaysian budget.
9. The second part of my speech will provide an update on how the GRB came about and how is it progressing in Parliament.
10. Third and lastly, I will indentify the challenges as well as opportunities in our quest for gender justice and helping women getting more of the national budget pie.
11. Let’s start with part one, what are the fundamental duties of any government and how is the budget involved in executing these duties?
12. Any democratic government in the world has three basic duties; they are (1) to protect its citizens from war, crime, dangers, and environmental disasters and at the same uphold basic human rights; (2) to empower its citizens through the provision of physical and virtual infrastructure, utilities, banking, education, internet; and (3) to lead and uphold rules, laws, culture, the arts, morality and religions.
13. These duties manifest themselves into what we call public policies, which in turn become laws, executive directives and cultural norms. The first point I want to stress, is that every single public policy has a budgetary element involved. So budget, or money, is really at the heart of government policy making.
14. The budget is also the most important measure of political intent. If say a ruling government wants to pursue a particular policy, it will normally pour a lot of money into the policy to realize it.
15. Inversely, how little money a government commits for a policy, can also be used to reveal political lies or the lack of real intent or support for such a policy.
16. For instance, a government can claim to champion a particular issue but they still have to “show me the money”.
17. Let me give a simple but real life example. Successive Malaysian prime ministers talk about improving the lives of oppressed Palestinians in Gaza. More so during the holy months.
18. From time to time, you will get ministers and politicians giving fiery speeches and even embarking on peace missions to Gaza. Successive budgets have been approved by cabinets to fund these good and noble initiatives.
19. But when I was chair of the Special Select Committee for International Trade and Relations, I was desperate to get my committee members to attend meetings. So my officer and I cooked up a nice and popular foreign policy topic; Malaysia’s position on the Palestinian crisis. We conducted the hearing on the matter and found out, from a budgetary point of view, on an average year in the last decade, the Malaysian government has only spent RM4 million a year on Gaza. The average size of Malaysian government budget over that decade is RM240 billion a year, so a RM4 million spending represents a mere 0.0016% of the budget.
20. That is why it is so important for the public to look at the budget allocations carefully and not just swallow wholesale, whatever politicians say.
21. Let me now directly deal with the issue of the quantum of budget allocated for women in Malaysia.
22. Successive Malaysian governments have claimed to champion women issues, rights and empowerment. There is even a women ministry in Malaysia. But let us now ask the government to “show me the money”. The following are my back of envelope calculations.
23. Out of the RM311 billion budget for this year 2022, the women ministry gets RM2.7 billion. That is 0.87% of the budget. In reality, this number is actually smaller as the women ministry covers families (which includes men) and community allocations too.
24. If we use the other more “GRB woke” countries such as Sweden, Rwanda and Burundi as a guide and yardstick, we note that in these model GRB countries certain ministries such as education, environment, tourism, health and agriculture are also seen to be “gender neutral” where arguably, half of these allocations do benefit women directly.
25. So let’s do a scorecard on these ministries too. For 2022, the education budget is RM54 billion, the higher education budget is RM14 billion, environment is RM4 billion, tourism is RM1 billion, health is RM32 billion, and agriculture is RM5 billion.
26. That brings a total of RM110 billion, we then divide these by half; we get an estimate sum of RM55 billion benefiting women directly. Then we add back the women ministry of RM2.7 billion, we get a grand total of RM58 billion.
27. RM58 billion out of RM311 billion is 18.6% of the national budget. You can also make a case that for the balance RM253 billion of the national budget, surely some of these will still impact women directly too. For instance; entrepreneurship grants, and defence spending may and do benefit “some” women. What we can guess is that these other budgets for ministries, tend to disproportionately benefit men more than women.
28. My estimate for these other male centric ministries will on average, benefit men over women by an 80:20 ratio. So what happens when we factor in that 20% too? What do we get as a grand total?|
29. My best estimate is the Malaysian national budget currently allocates a maximum of RM100 billion a year to women directly, or 32% of the budget. Once we factor out the large male migrant workers, the Malaysian sex ratio between women and men is about the same. So while women make up half of the number of Malaysian citizens, they get less than a third of the national budget pie.
30. We now come to the second part of my speech. I will provide an update on how the GRB came about and how is it progressing in Parliament.
31. The GRB came about thanks to WFD, Engender and the British High Commission’s case study initiative to localize GRB in several Parliamentary constituencies. My office took part in that initiative and my officers deployed GRB tools in our community projects. Getting my officers and myself to think in gender terms while designing the projects and then pursuing gender justice outcomes, are very good and important structured training.
32. However, in this speech I will continue to focus on the macro issue of GRB, which is GRB in context of the national budget, and in particular the budget 2022 consideration exercise which took place last September to December 2021.
33. We had a massive GRB breakthrough last year on the budget. Malaysia’s commitment to introduce GRB to its national budget was a direct result of the historic MoU signed between Pakatan Harapan and the government last September. The MoU which is widely misunderstood and frowned upon by certain segments of the public, is not just a political ceasefire document but is actually is serious transformative and reform document. I know this for a fact, because, well I did most of the drafting.
34. Under the MoU terms, the Opposition was empowered to provide inputs into the budget making process. We had 13 budget meetings with the Ministry of Finance from September to mid December 2021.
35. We had full access to economic data, we had briefings from statutory bodies including Bank Negara and the EPF. This may not seem to be a big deal in Britain, but in Malaysia these are truly groundbreaking events.
36. In all that giddiness and happy chaos of the new budget process and reforms, Keadilan MPs snuck in the GRB. I want to thank in particular my Keadilan colleagues YB Fuziah, YB Izzah and YB Nurin for pushing for these. My office orchestrated but it was the ladies who really fought for these reforms.
37. We were very happy that the Minister was very obliging but then again he had the sword of the MoU dangling over his head.
38. As such, GRB was given air time and policy space and then to top it off the Ministry approved RM15 million to the Department of Statistics Malaysia to start collating GRB data points for this year. I believe that we are on track to have a trial GRB budget report this year and a then a more complete GRB report for next year 2023, and thereafter as a permanent feature for all future national budgets.
39. Let me now turn to the last part of my speech; on the big picture challenges facing GRB and the mission to ensure gender justice and equal opportunities and fairness for all.
40. The Malaysian fiscal situation can be summarized crudely as such; our revenue model sucks and the government happily overspends every year.
41. Malaysia has had a history of very poor fiscal discipline; and I have to be honest and admit that even under the one year of pure Pakatan Harapan budget, we had problems too. The very last time, Malaysia has seen a decent budget with a fiscal surplus was the 1997 budget, when Anwar Ibrahim was then the finance minister.
42. Because of the poor fiscal discipline of politicians, the lack of political will to make hard non-populist decisions, Malaysia’s budget is in a rather bad and unsustainable state. It is not very resilient and most recently with the war in Ukraine driving up food and petrol prices, it is now downright shaky to say the least. And as the national debt increases every year, things are likely to worsen in years to come.
43. The point I am driving at, is simply, the timing is not great for the introduction of GRB. Just when we are starting to seriously look at fiscal justice for women via the GRB, the country is going into a bad fiscal situation.
44. Instinctively, the government will likely say that they have no spare money, and as such any request for a larger woman centric budget this year and next will likely be denied.
45. The challenge going forward for all of us is to pre-empt this “no money” excuse that the government will surely utilise. Therefore you must organise and show policies and produce economic arguments that empowering women will give a better fiscal return to the government.
46. Women as a whole are also much better educated than men in Malaysia, and as such should be able to command higher incomes. Higher incomes should translate to higher tax revenue for the government. The gender gap between women and men in Malaysian public universities are extreme even by global standards; 61% are women compared to 39% men.
47. My office is of the view that increasing women participation in the work force to 65% from the current low 56%, will improve government tax revenues (corporate and individual taxes) by an estimated RM20 billion per year.
48. We need to make similar strong economic arguments that even though we will have fiscal constraints in the next two years, spending on women centric policies rather than on men, will result in greater revenue outcomes for the government.
49. To make a very strong case, we need controlled policy trials and also historical and economic data from other countries, in particular the British and Nordic experiences will be of good use, where gender equality are high and a correlation can be linked to higher economic growth.
50. I also like to call upon women to join in the big fiscal fight in this country; the fight against corruption and administrative stupidity on vanity and mega projects that result in gross wastage of taxpayers money.
51. There is a direct link between corruption and why the government constantly has no spare or surplus money. It’s simply a case where whatever potential surplus money, has and are being stolen via dodgy contracts and abuses of power.
52. Having served in the Public Accounts Committee for a couple of years; my very conservative estimate on the quantum lost by the government to corruption and wastage is about RM10 to RM15 billion a year.
53. Once in a while, of course we may get a super whopper, like the 1MDB scandal where a net RM40 billion is estimated to have been plundered and lost. Thank god this is not a yearly affair.
54. The point I want to make is any savings from corruption and wastage can be better channeled for gender justice. So please go beyond gender justice and join the fight against corruption and for greater fiscal transparency and accountability.
55. One last point that should be of interests to all is the issue of the civil service and women participation. This is important because the civil service salaries consumes RM86 billion a year and their pensions consume RM28 billion, so a 37% of the national budget go towards the civil service.
56. There is a stereotype which I hope is true, that women are less prone to corruption than men. Occasionally, you will get the odd kleptocrat wife but overall women are supposed to better with money, less corrupt and more conservative in spending money. These are all ideal qualities for a civil service committed to good governance.
57. More recently in September 2021, the government disclosed that of all the top decision makers in the civil service, women make up a 38.2%. This is higher than the 30% target for the private sector. If this trend continues, we may reach 50% women as top decision makers in the civil service within the next decade.
58. This trend bodes well for women rights overall, and with more women in position of power in the civil service, we may also get better GRB focused budgets too.
59. On that hopeful end note, I thank the organizers for giving me this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on the national budget and GRB.