Economic Policy and a Passport Subsidy
In Malaysia, the word "special" often evokes thoughts of apartheid. However, the word "special" can also refer to children with mental disabilities. (Or, as one asylum I saw in Petaling Jaya said on its signboard, "orang cacat akal".)
This issue has particular pertinence to me because my youngest sister is one of those "orang cacat akal" — she suffers from global developmental delay, something akin to a mild Down's Syndrome.
One thing that strikes me about the Malaysian government is how odd its policies are with regard to handling families that have a special child.
The obligatory paperwork maze is something to be expected, of course. Whenever dealing with the government, there is a pile of red tape in the way, even when it comes to explaining why your special child cannot possibly enter standard one in any school.
Of course, bureaucracies are an unfeeling lot. It's the same wherever you go around the world. And yet, the Malaysian bureaucracy seems to have a bit of a soft touch somewhere.
A couple of years ago, when my family went to renew our passports, my sister's passport was renewed free of charge by the Immigration Department. This saved us a not-insignificant sum — about RM200 if I recall correctly.
However, when I remembered this incident recently, it struck me as an economically inefficient policy. The passport subsidy benefits primarily the well-off who can afford to go on foreign holidays or bring their child for medical treatment abroad.
The RM200 is thus not getting to those who need it most — every little bit helps for a kampung family having to support a special child. Why not just hand out RM200 to every special child, and let the family spend the money as they see fit?
I would argue for a larger subsidy (possibly indexed to tax bracket, or with some other means testing), but I won't risk the wrath of those who labour under the misconception that the Malaysian government doesn't have money to spend. (It actually does, but it's spending what it has very inefficiently.)
And putting the issue of special children aside momentarily, I wonder if that RM200 could not have been spent on the East Malaysian boy who died of starvation, so to speak.
It strikes us as cruel, but the best use of that RM200 probably is on something besides a special child. There are millions of normal children out there in Malaysia, and it is tragic that most of them suffer from a terrible dearth of opportunities. We are wasting the minds and bodies of our healthy young.
What is the ideal economic policy? What should be done with that RM200? I dare not say. Untangling the moral web surrounding this issue is a difficult task. But one thing is certain — giving out free passports to special children is not the most efficient use of that money.
This is of course just one mistargeted policy. But policies and incentives like these add up. We sometimes wonder why there is so much income inequality, so much inequity, so much injustice.
The answer can often be found in well-meaning but ultimately misguided policies labouring under misconceptions. We owe it to ourselves as taxpayers to ask ourselves where our tax money should best be going.