The Penang state government has been actively meeting businesses to see how it can help mitigate the economic downturn and minimise retrenchments. A very common refrain is to please cut electricity tariffs. Pakatan MPs in other states are also getting similar feedback from industrialists and entrepreneurs, “The cost of business is going up, we're facing challenging times, please cut power tariffs.”
The subsidy mentality permeates all levels of our society. Cheap power is a subsidy too. And like all subsidies, we should look closely to see if it truly benefits those most in need. Before we cut power tariffs, we should find out: 1) How many Malaysians the companies actually employ and 2) What will the companies do with the savings?
“How many Malaysians the companies actually employ” is particularly pertinent. When Indonesia liberalised fuel prices, including gas prices a few years ago, many manufacturers who depended on gas left Indonesia. It used to be a major player in the latex glove market – one where Malaysians such as Top Glove and Supermax complete. They quit, Malaysia ramped up market share.
But how many Malaysians did that really benefit? Top Glove, the world's biggest maker of latex gloves, was hit with a RM11.4m fine for having 1,769 illegal foreign workers on Aug 16, 2006. It has not reduced its dependence on foreign labour. The IHT reports that it employs 3,500 migrants - about half its work force - at 12 factories across the country.
Why are we subsidising this company and all these foreign labourers? Subsidies should go towards developing core Malaysian skills and improving productivity, not employing low-skilled low-valued add foreign labour.
Which brings me to the next question, What will the companies do with the savings? Any bets it'll tell workers you're lucky to stay employed; and the owners will happily pocket the additional profit? That doesn't help Malaysia – it just means another long-term subsidy which we cannot afford. No pure handouts please. Companies must earn the cheaper power by coming up with better ways of doing business.