Jun 5, 2008

Malaysian opposition plans protests against fuel price hike

Whie, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he hopes that the people of Malaysia will not take to the streets to vent their anger over the fuel price hike announced Wednesday, the Opposition groups said they would hold protests in Kuala Lumpur at 11.30am (0330 GMT) and in the northern city of Ipoh at 11.00am over the "unconscionable" increase.

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's government faced demonstrations and public outrage Thursday over its decision to hike petrol prices 40 percent overnight, in a bid to curb its massive subsidies bill.

Opposition groups said they would hold protests in Kuala Lumpur at 11.30am (0330 GMT) and in the northern city of Ipoh at 11.00am over the "unconscionable" increase.

"The fuel increase is both economically inefficient and socially unjust," said Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party which is part of the opposition alliance.

"So long as rich companies continue to enjoy such fuel subsidies, especially the independent power producers, the fuel increase will be seen as both pro-rich and punishing the poor," he said in a statement.

The new pump price for petrol will be 2.70 ringgit (84 US cents) and 2.58 ringgit for diesel. Petrol previously cost 1.92 ringgit, among the cheapest in Asia.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's announcement on Wednesday evening triggered chaos across the country as motorists swamped fuel stations to fill up before the measure took effect at midnight.

Traffic snarls brought streets to a standstill in the capital Kuala Lumpur as up to 100 cars queued at each petrol station which still had fuel to sell, while many others said they had sold out and turned angry customers away.

Abdullah indicated that further increases were in the pipeline as Malaysia moves to completely abandon fuel price controls that would have cost US$17.4 billion this year -- about a third of the national budget.

"God willing I hope Malaysians will not demonstrate over this," he said, referring to fury over earlier hikes in a country where public transport is poor and most people are reliant on their cars.

Motorists who turned up at petrol stations Thursday to pay sharply higher prices to fill their tanks were uniformly furious over the decision.

"We can do nothing about this government increase -- we have to buy fuel, otherwise how can we go to work?" said 56-year-old engineer K. Letchumanan.

"For my family it's not so bad as we have two incomes, but the poor people will suffer."

Aminah Rahmat, a 46-year-old streetside vendor who had set up her food stall outside a petrol station, said she could already barely manage on her monthly income of less than 1,000 ringgit (300 dollars).

"The government does not care for our welfare, that is why they have made such a huge fuel increase," she said.

"How can I afford to pay so much to transport my cooked food to my customers? I will go out of business."

Bus operators said that a third of companies may have to close down and lorry firm said their rates would have to rise, in a move that will trickle down to higher prices for goods and services.

Abdullah is taking a major political risk in removing price controls as he attempts to recover from disastrous March elections that dealt the ruling coalition its worst results in half a century.

Rising prices of food and fuel were a major factor in the ballot, which has triggered repeated calls for the premier to stand down.

"It is not an attempt to be popular, we have to think in the best interests of the people," Abdullah said Wednesday.

Under a revamped subsidy system, drivers of smaller vehicles will receive a cash payment of 625 ringgit to offset the rising cost, equating to subsidising some 800 litres of fuel.

But economists said the subsidy cut was deeper than anticipated, and that the cash payment was not large enough to compensate for average use.

Abdullah said the price hike could suppress economic growth and drive up inflation as high as 5.0 percent this year, from current levels of 3.0 percent in April.

As part of the subsidy reform, industry and power producers will be charged higher prices for gas from July. Electricity tariffs will rise 18 percent for householders, and 26 percent for commercial and industrial users.

But there was good news for Thais and Singaporeans who will now be allowed to buy fuel at border petrol stations after a recent ban was lifted in view of the subsidy cut. - AFP/ir

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