- Bickering between Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s allies about expensive airfares has done little to help Sabah and Sarawak’s undergraduates who have long faced peak season price gouging
- While the government has offered subsidies to ease the situation, the stopgap measure is unsustainable as the country embarks on spending cuts to manage its mounting debt
There has been a fair bit of mudslinging over the past week between reluctant allies in Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government, as undergraduates from the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak balked at exorbitant airfares to fly home for the Eid holidays that started this week.
It was a debate that would not have been out of place in previous years, except this time it was between members of the ruling administration – Transport Minister Anthony Loke who heads the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and his predecessor, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) president Wee Ka Siong.
Until last November, when Anwar was put in charge of a unity government formed by erstwhile political adversaries, the DAP and MCA decidedly sat on opposite ends as they tussled for support from the valuable minority ethnic Chinese vote base.
The argument that played out over the media centred on the price of a one-way ticket from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to the easternmost district of Tawau in Sabah state. Wee said a ticket on national carrier Malaysia Airlines would cost over 3,000 ringgit (US$677), based on his checks on the superapp of rival airline AirAsia.
Loke shot back by telling Wee to shop around for best fares instead of relying on prices quoted by a competing airline, and threw in an invitation for the latter to see off a flight on that exact route which cost passengers 249 ringgit (US$56) a seat.
But in the end, the tit-for-tat between the two leaders did little to deal with the fact that flying home for the Eid holidays remains an expensive undertaking for university students from Malaysian Borneo, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds.
Strict movement curbs and fears of the spread of Covid-19 have become a distant memory for many Malaysians, who are expected to travel in droves across the country to celebrate the Muslim holiday.
Authorities across the peninsula are already bracing for traffic crawls along major highways as people leave the cities to spend time with family in their home villages. Sales of train and bus tickets have also been brisk.
But the pace of recovery has been uneven across sectors and industries. While demand for air travel has grown considerably after Malaysia and most other nations did away with Covid-era restrictions, airlines still have some way to go to get their fleets back up and running to pre-pandemic levels after years of having their planes just sitting in the hangar.
As goes the principle of supply and demand, fewer planes mean costlier seats.
That said, peak season tickets from the peninsular to Sabah and Sarawak have always maintained a certain premium as an increasing number of youths from both states make the journey away from home and over the South China Sea in search of better opportunities.
Regardless of who was in charge, the government has been consistent in its position against meddling in how airlines set ticket prices, lest it turns off prospective investors in Malaysia’s aviation sector.
At the same time, Sabah and Sarawak are key political assets for any party or coalition that wants to form a strong federal administration. Both states collectively contribute 56 out of the total 222 seats in parliament.
Dismissing concerns of pricey flight tickets would be a bad idea for a sitting prime minister and their administration.
Anwar told a student dialogue earlier this month that the government could consider subsidising the cost of flights between the peninsula and Malaysian Borneo. Sarawak’s state government already has a mechanism in place, offering a 300 ringgit (US$67) allowance twice a year for students coming back for the holidays.
But subsidies tend to be band-aids that can get more expensive to maintain over time. And as the government works on trimming its spending to manage a trillion ringgit debt pile, something will eventually have to give.
Source: South China Morning Post