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Questions on the role of govt as private sector roped in for projects

From Menu Rahmah to the KL-Singapore HSR project, questions have been raised on letting the private sector take the lead.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
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An eatery offering Menu Rahmah meals for below RM5 at a supermarket in Subang, Selangor.
An eatery offering Menu Rahmah meals for below RM5 at a supermarket in Subang, Selangor.

Experts have weighed in on the pros and cons of private sector involvement in large-scale programmes such as the Menu Rahmah initiative for affordable meals and the axed High-Speed Rail (HSR) project meant to link Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. 

Malaysia has traditionally taken the "big government" approach to such matters, with Putrajaya actively running businesses through government-linked companies. 

Under Menu Rahmah, however, where meals are sold for as low as RM5, participating outlets bear the cost of providing the food themselves, working on a volunteer basis without government intervention. 

The domestic trade and cost of living ministry, which is spearheading the initiative, recently said that it was discussing the provision of incentives to the operators of eateries which provide Menu Rahmah meals to customers.

Meanwhile, critics have continued to express reservations about the programme's sustainability, with some restaurants also saying they cannot cover the overhead cost without external assistance. 

Economist Ahmed Razman Abdul Latiff said the private sector would continue to participate in the Menu Rahmah initiative as long as it could reap some benefit, adding however that it would need the government's support in terms of promotion. 

"The government must continue to promote and support the initiative as well as ensure that the private businesses and the public continue to benefit from such programmes," Razman, of the Putra Business School, said. 

Analyst Adilah Zafirah of think tank Iris Institute agreed. 

She said although Menu Rahmah depended on voluntary participation, it was also good marketing for the participating outlets. 

"But some small businesses have already asked for subsidies because it is not sustainable for them," she added. 

In terms of infrastructure projects, Transport Minister Anthony Loke recently said the government was open to reviving the HSR project which was scrapped in January last year after Malaysia and Singapore failed to reach an agreement on the changes proposed by Malaysia before the project agreement lapsed on Dec 31, 2020.

He said Putrajaya was open to proposals on the matter as long as the project was not funded by the government. 

"We are open to any proposals from the private sector as long as it is not funded by the government," he said. 

Commenting on Loke's remarks, Adilah said the government was already bearing a heavy financial burden.

"Since 1998, our spending has been more than our income," she said. 

"Even if the government wanted to invest in infrastructure, its hands are tied." 

But talk on involving the private sector has sparked concerns, among others on the final price tag and how affordable the end result will be. 

The KLIA Express, for example, which is operated by YTL Corporation Bhd, costs RM55 for a one-way trip. 

"The private sector, of course, expects economic returns," Adilah said. 

Razman meanwhile highlighted unresolved factors in the rail project such as its target users, links with KLIA, and the management of rail and land alike in both countries. 

"If the private sector can resolve these issues, the government should support the private investment," he said, adding that it would then avoid the high cost of financing. 

"There is no issue of whether the ticket price is expensive or not as there are many options for travel between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore," he added.

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