Malaysia is moving forward with a government plan to deepen its response to the coronavirus pandemic and revive the economy after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin managed to steer his first federal budget through a divided parliament.
After six weeks of debate, members of the lower house of the parliament voted to pass the budget for 2021 during its third reading on Dec 15. The 322.54 billion ringgit ($79.8 billion) budget is the largest in the country's history, with most of the funds going to economic recovery efforts and measures to fight COVID-19.
Now that the budget has been passed, the Malaysian government can "move on and start reviving Southeast Asia's third-largest economy", said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at Australia's University of Tasmania.
The bill for the budget gained the support of 111 members of parliament; 108 MPs voted against it. The legislation will now be sent to Senate, the legislature's upper house, for ratification, before coming into effect.
As part of efforts to aid the battered tourism sector, Malaysia on Wednesday launched a 10-year plan for its restart. The sector is estimated to have lost more than 100 billion ringgit this year.
The policy would be focused on strengthening competitiveness, encouraging sustainable and inclusive tourism, as well as planning for future disasters, Muhyiddin said.
Chin said the Dec 15 approval of the budget in the lower chamber reaffirmed the ruling Perikatan Nasional, or PN, coalition's majority in the parliament, noting that Muhyiddin is in a "stronger position now".
"Like many economies around the world, Malaysia's was damaged by COVID-19," Chin said.
World Health Organization data shows there were 97,389 confirmed cases of the disease in Malaysia as of Monday, with 439 deaths.
Awang Azman Awang Pawi, associate professor at the Academy of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, welcomed the passage of the budget. This would finally allow the government to focus on economic development and improve people's welfare, the academic said. In a statement issued after the third reading of the budget bill, Muhyiddin thanked the parliament for its support. He said the approval of the 2021 budget would help the government to implement programs to combat the pandemic and improve Malaysians' standard of living.
"I hope the members of parliament will continue to provide the best service to the citizens and the country," Muhyiddin said.
The parliament has become a testing ground for Muhyiddin and the PN over the past nine months. The ruling coalition has managed to retain its majority in the parliament, where it has secured critical wins, such as its installing of a party member as the speaker of the lower house and now its victory with the budget.
Chin said the failure of Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, to secure enough votes to defeat the bill exposed the weakness of the opposition camp. Anwar had earlier said he had the parliamentary majority.
Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, said the deliberations over the budget bill indicate the standings of the PN and the opposition. "The 111 to 108 vote is the best reading of both sides' strength," he said.