A few weeks ago, I accepted an invitation to attend a briefing on the current state of the Malaysian economy. It wasn't a very long session, perhaps just about 1.5 hours. Shorn of the numerous comparisons against other economies in the region, graphical illustrations and formal statistics compiled by so-called economic experts, the Malaysian economy was reported to be in good shape. It has been said that our economy has been growing well, and is still growing well; that we still have plenty of reserves, and we remain competitive in trades when compared to the neighbouring countries.
Truth be told, I had expected to hear all those even before I attended that briefing. Over the recent months, it has been regularly reported in the media that Malaysia's economy is doing great, and the outlook has always been positive too. Recently still, it was reported in The Star that "Malaysia's financial growth going from strength to strength".
Alas, I'm not an economist, and I can't say with authority the truth or accuracy about these official economic reports. As a layman, however, I can comment based on what I'm seeing in the streets around me.
The truth is that, despite all the positive reports in the media, an average Malaysian household is finding it increasingly tough to cope, and the trend seems to be continuing. It is, of course, good to know that the Malaysian economy is doing great, but it would be even better if all those "success stories" can somehow translate into a proportionate success story for the average household.
But the reality is not like that at all. For example, Malaysians in general are finding it increasingly hard to own a home. Prices have gone up so much to the extent that very few young Malaysians can afford to own their own homes. Even if they are earning more today in terms of Ringgit and Sen, they find that they get a "smaller basket of goods" with that money, because the cost of living has gone up quite a bit.
Too much emphasis had been made about wanting Malaysia to become a "high-income nation", but in the end, what really matters to the average household is to achieve a stronger purchasing power. There is no meaning to be able to earn millions of Ringgit even, if that money can't buy much. I'd rather have lesser Ringgit, but am able to buy more goods and services with that money.
These days I have taken over the responsibility of grocery shopping for my family, and I can say that I'm bound to see a bigger amount spent at the check-out counter. That's why I found that sitting there at the briefing a few weeks ago, listening to the success story of Malaysia, seemed somewhat surreal; what's reported somehow bears no resemblance whatsoever to what's happening to the ordinary people in the street.
To me, a successful economy is not really a successful economy if the citizens are not equally successful. They merely get to admire all the success stories on paper, but not actually feel the benefits in their pockets.