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M'sia to dismiss 17,000 state workers, reduce ministers' salaries by 10%

Dr Mahathir giving a press conference after a Cabinet meeting yesterday. He said contracts, including the one for the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high speed rail project, will also be reviewed.

Kuala Lumpur

THOUSANDS of government workers in Malaysia will lose their jobs and state agencies will be dissolved as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad moves to curb spending and debt.

The government will dismiss 17,000 contractual employees and reduce ministers' salaries by 10 per cent, Dr Mahathir said in a press briefing after his first cabinet meeting in Putrajaya on Wednesday.

Contracts, including the one for the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high speed rail project, will be reviewed, he said without giving a timeline.

Agencies, including the regulator Land Public Transport Commission and the Special Affairs Department, which is tasked with advising the state on maintaining public perception, will be dissolved.

"Most of these institutions founded which were not part of government, which were supposed to advise government, all these things will be disbanded," said Dr Mahathir. "We don't need their intelligence. I think we are quite intelligent ourselves."

The 92-year-old, who was swept into power after a historic general election win on May 9, is moving swiftly to stabilise the nation's finances after the government reported that debt was higher than previously disclosed under the former administration.

Credit rating agencies had warned of risks after Dr Mahathir scrapped the country's 6 per cent goods and services tax to fulfil a campaign promise. Total debt stands at 65 per cent of gross domestic product, higher than the self-imposed limit of 55 per cent, he said.

Newly-installed Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said on Tuesday that debt exceeds RM1 trillion (S$34 billion), inflated by borrowing by 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment company that's at the centre of a multi billion-dollar corruption scandal.

The Ministry of Finance's most recent economic report puts federal government debt at RM685 billion in 2017.

"It is clear that the previous government has conducted an exercise of deception to the public about certain hot-button items, especially 1MDB, and even misrepresented the financial situation to parliament," the 57-year-old Mr Lim said on his first day at work at the ministry.

"A thorough investigation and discovery is still ongoing to uncover the necessary financial information and data."

Government debt in Malaysia has been flagged as a risk by economists and credit rating companies such as Moody's Investors Service.

While the previous government steadily lowered its budget deficit over recent years to 3 per cent of GDP, debt is higher than other A-rated countries.

Once borrowing by state-owned companies is added, the debt burden climbs. Fitch Ratings said in a March report that debt guarantees provided by the federal government increased to almost 16.8 per cent of GDP in September 2017 from 15.2 per cent at the end of 2016.

"Frankly speaking, this is not surprising," said Trinh Nguyen, a senior economist at Natixis Asia in Hong Kong. "We are just getting something that was, in a way, off budget and it is now getting on budget."

She added that "investors weren't fooled to think that Malaysia's debt is what it is" and "the issue has always been its contingent liabilities and what does that mean in terms of debt repayment ability for Malaysia".

Mr Lim, the former Penang chief minister, said the government is considering reintroducing a sales and services tax this year and the levy will be set at 10 per cent if a pledge in the manifesto of Dr Mahathir's coalition is followed.

Dr Mahathir is tackling corruption related to 1MDB, ordering the reopening of investigations into the state fund as one of his first steps since taking office two weeks ago.

1MDB is one of the main reasons for the government's high debt, Mr Lim said.

Set up by the government in 2009 to build infrastructure with borrowed money, 1MDB amassed more than RM50 billion of debt in just over six years, largely from assets in the energy sector.

Its borrowings clouded the sovereign credit rating, weighing on the government's contingent liabilities. Its current debt level is not immediately clear.

"Some of this information was not fully disclosed, so I think it's important that we get on with our discovery so we can get all information on the table," Mr Lim said. BLOOMBERG

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