This column first appeared on the Malay Mail Online on May 21, 2015.
MAY 22 — Dilbear Singh’s conundrum is making him go nuts, or more like drawn away from the fried sort. The Air Force pensioner’s local — and favourite — kacang putih (nut snacks) vendor is charging his patrons Goods and Services Tax (GST). So, the five-ringgit fried peanuts come with the additional six per cent handwritten on the receipt, not a machine-issued one.
This has irked the serviceman who before helped planes land—and presumably take off — in the Signals Corp for 22 years.
For Mr Dilbear can’t work out how a small shopkeeper is raking in RM500,000 annually to qualify for the tax penalty — though I’m in no doubt the seller does exceed the quantum, but I have doubts that he squares up with Custom thereafter. So I feel for the former warrant officer.
While the Sikh gentleman from Ipoh’s Taman Merdeka plans to discover whether there is a genuine tax code for the nuts he pays for, my real take home — from the silver state to often stodgy Cheras — was that real patriots [he runs the local Rukun Tetangga (street anti-crime patrols) ] are really bummed about the new tax, the one that gets everyone in the country. No escape for Snake Plissken in this new regime.
While lamenting government policies is a national pastime in good and bad years, this time the unusual suspects are speaking up, and it has not passed notice.
Everywhere I go, without any taunting or provocation, people — at times those who actively swear off mentioning anything remotely political and curse those who talk about parties, election or dissent — are having a say.
One ‘bear’ does not make a summer
Are these cries just knee-jerk and not deep — widely felt but with no depth in the anguish?
That Mr Dilbear is the exception, not the case.
When answers are not forthcoming, please turn to tabloid newspapers.
Harian Metro prides — because it displays the number on its print copy — in the 3.83 million daily readers. That’s more than 10 per cent of the country — men, women and children — where reading is held with great disdain, which means its readership constitutes a large slice of the reading population.
Which would lead the casual observer to expect a range of stories about exorcism by bored housewives, paedophile marriages and husbands leaving their wives over unexplained absences within its sheets, and they will not be disappointed. However in it too are five classified pages plastered with loan deals.
“Teachers, civil servants, the blacklisted, the footnotes of your local mamak and bored students, come for your loans. We have an easy to understand repayment table, don’t trust calculators! Damn the reasons, take the cash first!”
It is a lucrative business, getting debtors in hopeless situations, because for the large majority who are expectedly Metro readers, there is not enough money in the income game. There is mortal proof in the next page, filled with bankruptcy declarations.
With 70 per cent of our families — the nation’s larger families — earning RM3,000 or less, the GST would even with broad exemptions for staple product nick at least RM100 monthly from these families.
And in an highly exploitive economy obeisant to business owners, a general rise in prices because the supply line is purportedly hit hard by the tax, the total damage cannot be calculated by just six per cent of all the things we habitually buy.
Do you need an invitation?
A fortnight ago I proffered that the new burden is creating mass awareness of the “I” in “Parliament approved budgeted expenditure”, and that’s why it is great to bring the apathetic to care for change, even if because they are selfish.
Today, I want to relate to those who are adequately fed-up and willing to upend the new tax a way forward. Fraternity. Bring those who share the sentiment — and there millions out there — together.
The politicians — and their conduits — have had numerous outings in the city masquerading as the voice of the people, and they have at best been lukewarm. They are not wrong in what they say, just that they crowd the message with all other things, all their other political pre-occupations.
“End the Sedition Act”, “No more POTA”, “Free Anwar”, “No more delineation exercise”, “Farmers against Felda’s oppression”, “Students need to be free in universities” or “Let us have the oil royalty” are important issues, but whether those championing them want to recognise or not, those are not necessarily the issue of Joe Public who is just incensed by the new tax, because he is paying for it.
Overlap the GST fight with a slew of other causes, the captive market becomes distracted.
Look at the models which have worked.
Bersih and Hindraf built their reputation in their infancy because their purpose was raw, and direct. There was no discrepancy of what the cause wanted. If anything the presence of politicians as leaders at the rallies displeased more than a few.
And they are principle issues, drawing those committed to the core objective.
GST is a daily life affectation, a negative one at it. Taxes and people — a story older than democracy. Maybe the story which brought democracy.
They did storm tea carrying ships in Boston Harbour in 1773 and decades later a fellow Massachusetts native went to jail, both in defiance of unrepresented local levies.
Nor are they whimsical historical recollections.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fiscally disciplined a lax British purse, revered privatisation and beat down Argentinean junta leaders in a brief decisive fight down their yard, to accumulate 11 years in power and to be referred to as the impenetrable Iron Lady, yet when she brought the poll tax, she brought upon herself her end. A tax that does not discriminate the rich or poor, a capitalist’s wet dream.
Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment then, Nicholas Ridley, bragged that, “A duke would pay the same as a dustman”. He may have unwittingly written the opening lines of Thatcher’s political obituary.
In 1990, when the poll tax went national, 250,000 went down to London to inform the prime minister what they felt which forced such national outpouring of discontent that her own party leaders had to dismiss her through a leadership vote.
Single issue movements of the right kind are Macedonian Alexander’s sword to Phrygian mischief, the arrow to the left eye of King Harold, they are mortifyingly lethal.
Leaders from victims
When the unlikely stand up, the powerful take full notice.
The most direct manner to reduce confusions surrounding any anti-GST protest is to line up those who are not political, but those who are victims.
A steering committee filled with retirees, university students on the PTPTN (government loan), single mothers working in organisations not corporations, 30-year-old professionals from middle class families struggling to own a home and community organisers, that’s how the partisanship is removed from the equation.
In short the Dilbear Singhs of this country — tall-short, male-female, employed-unemployed and urban-rural, the all sorts who know the price of chicken rice and bus schedules.
Those who need GST to end because their real lives are on the line. That’s how the “No to this tax” group can hit the tipping point.
Now, if only those who fit that description can just step forward. Because, the thing is just nuts otherwise.