Random Play by Graham Reid


The Shock of the Familiar

It's inevitable when we travel that we recognise the familiar: the McDonalds in smalltown Thailand, yet another damn Body Shop, a reggae bar covered in Bob Marley iconography, a Madonna poster on the wall of a hair salon in a small village in Malaysia . . .

But that is simply because our senses are drawn to those things which have some resonance for us, it doesn't necessarily mean that cultural imperialism has washed over these places and all is lost.

What we don't recognise -- but which is much more important to most locals -- is the name of their favourite band on a poster written in their own language, the banner for a small family-run bakery, the sign which tells you where you can get your motorbike fixed . . .

But inevitably when I picked up the Malaysia Star the other day in Kuala Lumpur my eye was drawn to the wearily familiar stories: some driving instructors were taking kickbacks to pass people for their license; a boy racer killed in a suburban industrial area; a missing child; a murder; the weather as news . . .

There was nothing in any of this I hadn't read a thousand times before either at home or in some other place. Of course the interesting news -- all the regional reports from places with names I couldn't pronounce let alone had heard of -- were fascinating.

Well, to me at least.

I imagine there is someone in Petaling Jaya throwing down their paper in disgust and saying in one of the many languages spoken here, "Same damn thing every day!"

But the big news here -- aside from the local soccer -- has been the budget. Let me tell you the main points of what has been billed a "compassionate" budget "with goodies for everyone".

Education: it's all going to be completely free with all restrictions lifted on some Textbook Loan scheme and the abolition of annual fees for primary and secondary students, as well as the examination fee for some big exam.
If you are SpecialEd teacher your monthly allowance goes up from RM100 to RM250. (The ringgit is worth about 45cents, but that is still a substantial percentage increase).

If you are a Graduate Teacher your allowance goes from RM85 to RM150.

If you are a government-sponsored student your cost-of-living allowance will be increased between 23% and 84%. There are substanital cost of living allowances if you are studying in the US, Canada and Britain.

There are also payments direct to health specialists in a governemnt hospital from patients who are full-paying; there is tax relief of up to RM300 to buy health and sports equipment to encourage a healthy lifestyle; workers with the disabled get a 50% increase in their allowance; there are tax deductions for business if they provide new computers and broadband for employees (and the employee is tax-exempt for the benefit of it); senior citizens aged above 55 (!!?!) who are unemployed can buy government bonds (dunno how that works) and so on.

There was much more besides and the papers and television have been filled with smiling political faces and some civilians saying good things. Even the leader of the opposition admitted there were a lot of goodies in it.

All this has been necessary because in Malaysia the cost of living is rising and wages etc aren't keeping up. It is become more expensive to buy a house (espeically if you are aren't a government worker who gets a special deal) and so on.

But there is also a big push to improve research and development, and the knowldegede economy (which I take to be rather more go-ahead than the one we banged on about maybe six years ago).

Anyway all this is interesting and as a budget it was quite unfamiliar: our budgets seem to involve giving people a packet of chewing gum as I recall, or saying there will be jam on April 1 next year.

But as I travelled down to coastal Melaka with a very chatty Indrin we finally got talking about the budget. He, as many commentators had, nailed it in one.

"But next year is the election, so this is just an election budget".

Somehow that sounded very familiar indeed.

PS: I am travelling around peninsula Malaysia, Sarawk and Sabah -- with sidetrips to Singapore and Brunei -- for a fortnight and as and when I have the time or inclination I shall bore you with what a wonderful time I am having.

I am also putting up some rather more . . . hmmm . . . reflective thoughts

By the way, The All Blacks' victory got a whole page about seven in from the back after the soccer.

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