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New Pakistan PM pushing for reforms

The government is introducing positive and business friendly reforms to transform Pakistan into a progressive society

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Mr Rahman says the scope of the CPEC between China and Pakistan has been extended to agriculture, tourism, health, educational linkages and people to people contacts.

PAKISTAN'S new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is pushing for wide ranging economic, social and political reforms and has introduced austerity measures as the country faces economic and financial pressures like a balance of payments crisis with foreign exchange reserves to meet just a few months of imports.

Mr Khan, who was swept into power in August last year on the promise of corruption free governance and a strong reform agenda, has moved swiftly to start delivering on the many promises he made for the betterment of the country's population which is 207 million strong.

"The major part of the new Pakistan policy comprises social welfare of the people of Pakistan," Mr Saeed Ur Rahman, Pakistan's Acting High Commissioner, said in an interview with The Business Times on the eve of Pakistan's National Day on March 23.

The steps taken by the new government include "institutional reforms, e-services and e-governance, anti-corruption drive, poverty alleviation, improvements in health and education, developing tourism, liberal visa regime, special economic zones and industrial parks, ease of doing business, and wealth and employment creation," he says.

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"With the new government of Mr Imran Khan in Islamabad, a chain of positive and business friendly reforms are being introduced to transform Pakistan into a progressive society. The government is investigating cases of and taking measures against corruption, judiciary is introducing reforms for speedy justice, health cards (worth S$7,000) are being issued to families below the poverty line for hassle free and dignified access to health facilities and medicine, and police reforms are underway for incorporating modern technologies and online services," says Mr Rahman.

Meanwhile, the school curriculum has been revised to streamline and upgrade the educational system, and e-governance projects are being implemented to provide online services to the citizens. Social welfare and poverty alleviation are at the heart of Imran Khan's government, he says.

Mr Rahman, 34, is a career diplomat belonging to the Pakistan Foreign Service. He has been Acting High Commissioner of Pakistan in Singapore since October last year. His previous overseas postings were to Bulgaria and Mexico.

He highlighted that after several successful military operations against terrorists, Pakistan has been able to eradicate terrorism from its areas bordering Afghanistan. In this fight, Pakistan has lost more than 70,000 civilian lives and suffered US$123 billion worth of economic losses.

"Nevertheless Pakistan has emerged as a tolerant, peaceful and resilient nation. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite challenges of topography, has been fenced in order to block the entry of terrorist and extremist elements into Pakistan. "The vision of Naya or new Pakistan is based on the principles of greater regional connectivity through the China Pakistan economic corridor (CEPC), the Turkmenistan-Afghanisation-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipe line project for which final host state agreement has been signed between Turkmenistan and Pakistan and for the upgrading of the railway link between Pakistan, Iran and Turkey," says Mr Rahman.

"PM Imran Khan, after his election as premier, extended an invitation to his Indian counterpart for negotiations and peaceful resolution of all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir. The initiative of Kartarpur Corridor for visa free arrival of Indian nationals to Pakistan is another great initiative of the new government," he adds.

Mr Rahman says that PM Khan has reiterated that his government will be working for greater regional connectivity and strengthening peace in the region. His initiative of opening the Kartarpur Corridor, a visa free transit between Pakistan and India, is an important confidence-building measure to promote peace and religious tourism. This initiative has the potential of opening of more corridors in the region.

In line with this policy, the new government is also working on projects to protect religious and heritage sites of the minorities in Pakistan and liberal visa regimes are being put in place for religious and heritage tourism.

To attract international tourists, a National Tourism Coordination Board has been constituted, comprising public and private stakeholders, for tourism infrastructure development and introducing new tourist products. The E-visa system, unveiled on March 14, 2019, is another big step by the government for opening the doors of Pakistan for the international community.

In the new visa regime, nationals of 55 countries, including Singapore, will get visas on arrival through eTA (electronic travel authorisation) and nationals from 175 countries will get E-visas. Business visas for up to five years with multiple entries are being issued within 24 hours, Mr Rahman says.

Taking note of the changes taking place in Pakistan, the Singapore Business Federation - the Republic's apex business chamber - sent a high level business delegation to Pakistan from Feb 24 to March 3 to explore bilateral business opportunities.

Green Pakistan project

Mr Rahman highlights that environment protection is a subject close to the heart of PM Khan. In the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), which is one of the four administrative provinces of Pakistan, one billion trees have been planted to mitigate the effects of climate change after his party came to power in 2014. Now, the Green Pakistan project aims to plant 10 billion trees over the period of five years. Apart from addressing the climate change issues, the project aims to increase forest cover, protect wildlife, and boost eco-tourism in the country.

Turning to the economy and the help being sought by Pakistan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Mr Rahman says that the immediate economic pressures of foreign exchange reserves have abated due to financial assistance from various friendly countries. The negotiations with the IMF have reached a final stage. Pakistan's Finance Minister, during interaction with the media on March 17, said that the negotiations for the final agreement will be held after the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF next month. Meanwhile, new data just in shows that the trade deficit in February 2019 was reduced by 73 per cent as compared with February 2018.

The government has also reduced its expenditure considerably through the austerity measures introduced by PM Imran Khan.

Meanwhile the government is working on tax reforms. The Inland Revenue Service, which is responsible for tax policy and tax collection, is developing new strategies to expand the tax net and introduce an easy tax filing system. Despite economic pressures, the government is able to provide tax cuts to the banking system to help them improve financial products and services," says Mr Rahman.

Mr Rahman says that the US$65 billionCPEC will take its initial shape in 2020 as short-term projects have been completed and integrated with Pakistan's national infrastructure.

In the energy sector, seven projects have been completed and energy supply has been added to the national grid. The short-term motorway projects will be completed within the next two months and major bottle necks in the economic system are being addressed by the new government through economic reforms, measures for ease of doing business and investment incentives and tax holidays.

The direct impact of the CPEC on the economic growth rate will be visible from 2020 onwards.

The second phase of the CPEC has been started in which medium term projects will be completed in or before 2025. Nine Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and industrial parks are being developed on a priority basis at strategic locations along the CPEC projects to provide exclusive investment opportunities through tax holidays on the development of SEZs, installation of machinery, production and exports.