Life in the big city is about to get a lot less glamorous. With a property bubble about to burst, a recent sharp spike in the cost of living, and an uncertain economy all plaguing city folk at the same time, any additional burden would provoke outrage, to say the very least.
Living in the city has always carried the caveat of being a lot more expensive than living out in the countryside, but the recent toll hikes in and around the city have put a significant dent in the spending ability of lower and middle class families. One only has to look at our shopping malls these days. They are half empty, and no one is carrying shopping bags anymore.
2016 was already looking bleak even before the recent news that the PLUS Highway would see a 5% increase in toll rates every three years. The announcement makes the foreseeable future considerably darker than it already is.
The PLUS Highway was not one of the 12 highways that saw toll hikes recently. Already the rumblings were loud enough to serve as a warning to Barisan Nasional as it prepares for the next general election. True, BN may have given up all hope of ever winning the urban vote anyway. However, complaints about the government's insensitivity to the rakyat's plight reach far and wide these days. And remember that the PLUS Highway cuts across much of the country. Remember too that along with PLUS, there are eight highways entitled to toll hikes in the near future.
Combine all this with the news that public transport such as buses and trains would see a fare hike next year, and you create a situation that not only slows the growth of the middle class ' a class that is vital to the creation of a first-world country ' but also decelerates overall social mobility as spending power is curbed by the rising cost of living.
The government should have allowed the highway concessionaires to begin their rate increases a decade ago. By gradually increasing the rate, you give businesses and society time to adjust to the rising cost of living, especially if you also determine a livable minimum wage that takes into account that tolls are a fact of life living in Kuala Lumpur. You don't do it by dealing society a knockout blow with a toll hike that constitutes a 100% increase at some toll gates, and then producing a schedule for price hikes.
Combine all these factors with an election due in the next two years and you have a recipe for disaster. If rises in the cost of living cannot be curbed, voters' feelings towards the Federal Government will be ugly. In fact, the suddenness of the toll hike only lends credence to the popular accusation that the government is looking to refill its coffers.
Najib and his team had better have a plan to ease the hardship of the people, especially given that these increases are coming in the face of an imminent election. The sudden spike in the cost of living in Malaysia means that any recovery will be a long time coming, and while Najib may think he has time on his side given the current weakness of the opposition, the people may not give him enough time if things do not begin to improve soon.