KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — Former prime minister Najib Razak on Tuesday (10 November) criticised the federal government’s move to allocate over a whopping RM85.5 million to JASA, a ‘special affairs department’ under the Communications and Multimedia Ministry.
Speaking in the Dewan Rakyat yesterday during the debate of the Bill on Budget 2021, Najib said that the provision should instead go to COVID-19 essentials such as masks and hand sanitisers.
It would be more acceptable, he added, if the allocation for JASA will instead be channelled into providing nutritious breakfasts for children for underprivileged families to replace the Supplementary Meal Plan (RMT) supply, in the wake of school closures as a precautionary measure during the pandemic.
Describing the budget as a “wartime budget”, Najib called on the Ministry of Finance to reconsider the amount of proposed funding for JASA in light of current circumstances.
Under Budget 2021, JASA is slated to receive RM4 million for strategic communications under the Communications and Multimedia Ministry and RM81.5 million for new policies.
JASA was established as early as 1959 to disseminate government policies, programmes and initiatives to the public such as Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020) under Mahathir Mohamad’s administration. Its current name came after several instances of the department’s rebranding.
The unit came under fire in more recent times for purportedly serving as a propaganda tool for Umno — a component party of the then-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition — during Najib’s administration. The 1Malaysia slogan was heavily promoted by JASA during his tenure.
In 2017, opposition politician Wan Azizah Wan Ismail questioned why the Director-General of JASA was paid a higher salary than the Communications and Multimedia Minister at the time.
JASA was later dissolved by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition — which toppled Najib’s rule in the landmark general election in 2018 — as part of its austerity move.
Independent youth-led movement YPolitics.my noted that JASA has been accused of launching attacks on opposition or opposition-linked campaigns and policies, such as the Bersih rally calling for clean and fair elections and the protest on the 1MDB scandal — a controversy that revolved primarily around Najib’s purported abuse of power and money laundering activities via the state fund.
YPolitics.my also noted that according to the PH government, JASA received RM74 million in 2014, RM 22.9 million in 2017, and RM30 million in 2018 — all during Najib’s tenure.
This was acknowledged by Najib himself in Parliament yesterday, who said that the allocation for JASA in the proposed Budget 2021 is “four times bigger” than that of the BN era.
Health systems and policies specialist Khor Swee Kheng drew attention to the scale of JASA’s allocation in relation to the proposed funding for other far more essential purposes and sectors.
We should create a new measuring unit called the “JASA”. Examples:
1. One-off RM500 to 100k frontliners = 0.62 JASA.
2. Nephrology = 0.69 JASA.
3. Arts & Culture = 0.53 JASA.
But we can’t be distracted by one small point, when #Budget2021 could undermine 🇲🇾’s health service.
— Dr Khor SK (@DrKhorSK) November 7, 2020
Tweeting a more extended comparison, healthcare administration professional Yoong Khean highlighted how the proposed funding for JASA is higher than the allocation for multiple medical departments or sectors.
To put things to perspective, RM81mil for JASA is higher than:
Nuclear med 10mil
Health education 48mil
Kesihatan Pergigian 52mil
— yoong (@yoongkhean) November 6, 2020
The Communications and Multimedia Ministry earlier stated in a release on Monday that it is imperative for the government to reestablish JASA as an agency to communicate information to all segments of society in a streamlined way, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of the proliferation of “fake news”.
It said that the provision aims to create more hiring opportunities nationwide and to foot operational costs such as mobilising staff, particularly in rural and remote areas in the country.
The ministry added that the revival of JASA is not politically motivated.
Critics, however, questioned the need for JASA, given the unit’s reputation as “the biggest apologist and fabricator of reports about 1MDB” during Najib’s tenure and the current and more urgent needs of frontline medical staff.
You don’t need JASA to unite the nation. The frontliners are doing that by their devotion and sacrifices. Spend the RM80m on the frontliners, buy more PPE, more equipment, more test kits so we can do mass testing. My 2 sen.
— B4H4 B1D4R1 (@B4H4B1D4R1) November 9, 2020
There is no need for JASA, in the first place, even during Najib’s time. We remember that JASA was the biggest apologist and fabricator of reports about 1MDB during his time.
— Daud Suratman (@DaudSuratman) November 10, 2020
A petition calling for the government to cancel the allocation for JASA in Budget 2021 garnered 32,509 signatures out of the target 35,000 at the time of writing.
“An extreme government propaganda body since the UMNO-BN rule should not use taxpayers’ money [to carry out such work], especially when the people and the country are facing a health and economic crisis due to COVID-19.
“Either the provision for JASA must be struck out, or Budget 2021 must be rejected in its entirety,” the petition statement read.
Comms and Multimedia Minister reportedly “unaware” of sum proposed for JASA
The Malaysian Insight reported on Tuesday that Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was not aware of the proposed sum allocated to JASA, as he was not briefed on the amount.
Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Zahidi Zainul Abidin reportedly said that while Saifuddin is aware that JASA will be revived, the minister “may have forgotten as he has many responsibilities”.
“He [Saifuddin] is always active and busy, so he sometimes forgets matters that have been brought to his attention,” Zahidi was reported as saying.
Zahidi in July this year revealed that JASA would be reinstated for the purpose of providing jobs for staff members who were terminated by the PH administration.
The department, he said, seeks to hire 500 out of its former 1,000 staff.
Budget 2021, slated to be the biggest budget in Malaysian history at RM322.5 billion in total, was tabled by Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz last Friday.
Under the proposed Budget, Ministry of Health (MOH) frontline workers will receive a RM500 one-off payment each — an amount that has been criticised by the public, given the hazard level faced by medical frontline workers in handling COVID-19 cases.
Tengku Zafrul said that the payment will be made in addition to the current monthly special allowance they have been receiving since March this year.
The one-off payment is expected to benefit 100,000 medical staff, he said.
Tengku Zafrul added that the monthly special allowance of RM600 will be continued until the COVID-19 pandemic is successfully addressed.
“The Government values the toil and sacrifices of the frontliners in managing this COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
The RM500 one-off payment initiative will be part of an additional RM1 billion to be allocated to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, particularly in preparation for a possible third wave of infections.
The additional RM1 billion will supplement the Government’s spending of RM1.8 billion this year on implementing movement control and public health service needs related to COVID-19, said the minister.
Such needs include the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), reagent and consumables.
Tengku Zafrul said that the extra allocation will encompass the following:
- RM475 million for the purchase of reagent, test kits, and consumables for MOH usage;
- RM318 million to provide PPE and hand sanitisers to MOH frontline staff;
- RM150 million to the National Disaster Management Agency to coordinate efforts to fight COVID-19; and
- RM50 million for the purchase of equipment, laboratory test supplies, and medicine for university teaching hospitals, as well as to procure equipment required to resume dental services, virtual clinical services. Part of the amount will also be used to prepare preliminary zone facilities and thermometers at health facilities to meet Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).
The minister also said that the Government is striving to obtain affordable COVID-19 vaccine supplies, including through participation in the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) programme.
“These COVID-19 vaccine supplies are expected to cost more than RM3 billion to meet the needs of Malaysians,” he said.