THE latest economic stimulus package Penjana aims to initiate the economic recovery phase of Malaysia through three thrusts — empowering the people, propelling business and stimulating the economy.
Designed to assist industries and citizens affected by the pandemic, the focus of Penjana encompasses the preservation and creation of employment, the fostering of digitisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the promotion of domestic and foreign direct investment, and revival of the tourism industry.
Despite its comprehensiveness, can Penjana fulfil the needs of enterprises that may have been left out before during the pandemic? There are those in the service industry that — due to its nature that requires close human contact, incompatibilities with online business models and perhaps lack of awareness — have not been able to reap opportunities in this difficult time.
Professions such as masseuses and personal trainers, for example, cannot render service through the same technology that benefits other types of business during the Movement Control Order (MCO).
Small and independent enterprises are especially vulnerable. Already there are reports of small gyms closing down and mas-seuses losing their income as consumers fear close physical contact, thus subjecting these enterprises to the economic harshness of the pandemic.
A contracting operational space also presents a challenge. After a lengthy lockdown, some may have learned the skills or obtained necessary equipment they previously needed from these professionals.
As an example, some gym-goers may continue engaging in home exercises after the MCO is relaxed, having purchased equipment from Lazada and studied exercise routines from YouTube videos.
To be clear, these services have been receiving assistance from the beginning of the pandemic. However, perhaps more could be done to improve their wellbeing. The question now is whether Penjana by itself is sufficient to assist these professionals.
The Penjana package consists of a number of incentives that could be expanded to benefit this segment of the service industry as well as incorporate formal mechanisms in government policies to further improve the social safety net of all Malaysians.
For example, the grant to match contributions to the Employees Provident Fund, voluntary i-Saraan and Social Security Organisation (Socso) injury scheme to promote the gig economy could be extended to these professionals.
However, there is also a need to improve the scope and capacity to deal with the loss of income due to unemployment caused by a sudden crisis. Options outside Penjana should therefore be examined.
The Employment Insurance System (EIS) Act of 2017 materialised in the form as Socso EIS, in which the scheme extends financial support as well as allowances to affected employees.
A similar scheme could be considered for the wider segment of working society, particularly those not covered by EIS or the Voluntary Separation Scheme.
Furthermore, the strength in numbers could also be considered. Many economic sectors have established “associations” with different sizes and capacities and can be effective in playing their role in ensuring the welfare of their members during the crisis, exemplified by the Malaysian Hairdressing Associations as well as Malaysian Federation of Hawkers and Petty Traders Association.
These associations can lighten the burden through distributing care packages, offering assistance in obtaining benefits and incentives, informing members about guidelines, and articulating the needs and concerns of their members. For the aforementioned professions, any existing associations they belong to should better represent their interest and cater to their needs, considering the uniquely difficult position they are in.
Penjana is a comprehensive plan especially if put in the context of the fourth phase (out of six) of the government’s strategy to fight the pandemic. However, for those professions above, it can only provide a portion of the solution to their predicament.
Ultimately, the onus is on the individual whether as entrepreneurs or employees. Covid-19 as an experience presents a lot of lessons to be learned by all layers of the economy. Success and failure are part and parcel of life, it is up to each individual to be better prepared.
Regardless of the professions, individuals should set aside funds, manage cash flow better, think outside the box and find creative ways to generate income whether we are in a crisis or not.
This article first appeared in New Straits Times on 13 June 2020.