One of the hallmarks of an emergency period are the vast powers placed in the hands of the government of the day. Vast, legal and constitutionally sanctioned powers.
In a virus emergency such as the one currently in place, such powers would come in handy for the very purpose for which they are designed: to protect public health and livelihoods, a phrase that has marked the government’s approach to containing the pandemic.
The virus emergency allows the government to take over private assets in the public interest. Thanks to such power, a mere polite request by the government for private hospitals and hotels to allow the use of their premises for vaccination and the treatment of Covid-19 patients has received a positive response.
Apparently, that is not the case with our banks which, for decades, have been profiteering from the flesh, to speak in Shylockian terms, of millions of Malaysians borrowing to put a roof over their heads, educate their children or start a business.
This is because the man to whom the banks answer – Tengku Zafrul Aziz – is not only nice but seems to justify his niceties while in the same vein portraying himself as the weakest minister during this emergency period.
It is abundantly clear that Zafrul as the finance minister has almost supreme power over the banks.
Yet he seems to have chosen to wear his banker’s hat when talking about helping borrowers survive another onslaught through the movement control order 3.0.
“Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” is what he said in a recent statement.
He then suggested that most people were able to continue paying their loans, based solely on the fact that 85% of borrowers resumed their loan repayments after the six-month moratorium last year. Such a judgment is not only misplaced but also ignores the fact that many people, especially those who are not in the B40 category, chose not to apply for an extension of the moratorium due to a lack of documents or for fear of affecting their financial score. An automatic moratorium forced upon banks, meanwhile, would have had no impact on the latter.
Zafrul has ignored the fact that banks continued making money last year despite the blanket six-month moratorium period. And if the argument is that banks needed such huge profits to invest in future loans, what about the fact that some top bankers paid themselves huge bonuses in 2020, a year in which more than 100,000 Malaysians lost their jobs?
The truth is, proving a loss of income in this disruptive age of the gig economy is not easy.
What is worrying is that Zafrul, through his various statements, appears to have left it entirely to the banks to call the shots.
In all of his remarks defending his decision not to impose a blanket moratorium, he did not so much as hint at a warning to banks if they are reluctant to suspend loan collections.
Zafrul, a non-politician, was appointed to his present position solely because of his experience in the banking industry.
This huge crisis gives him an opportunity to show that he can use his knowledge of banks to help the people.
The prime minister’s assurance that Malaysia will overcome the pandemic offers hope to the public, even as a scandal-tainted former leader assumes the position of an official spokesman by dishing out daily doses of sarcasm and factoids on efforts to return the country to normalcy.
Zafrul must not allow such characters to hijack the government’s efforts.
There are many industries that are accepted as a part of life, a necessary evil. Banking is one of them.
There is a joke that goes like this:
The poor work and work;
The rich exploit the poor;
The soldier protects both;
The taxpayer pays for all three;
The banker robs all four.
Zafrul’s job is to make sure that the above stays a fiction, by admitting his mistakes and forcing banks to bite the bullet too.
Abdar Rahman Koya is CEO & editor of MalaysiaNow.