Vendors sell vegetables at a roadside stall near the Chow Kit Market in Kuala Lumpur on 17 June, 2020, as sectors of the economy are being reopened following restrictions to halt the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Vendors sell vegetables at a roadside stall near the Chow Kit Market in Kuala Lumpur on 17 June, 2020, as sectors of the economy are being reopened following restrictions to halt the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Seeing Red over Rising Prices for Greens

Published

Malaysian netizens are seeing red over the government’s handling of rising prices for daily necessities. The reality is that much of the recent price hikes are due to factors beyond the government’s control.

The rising prices of daily necessities in Malaysia have led to rising levels of mercury in the country’s online space. In the second half of November 2021, inflation became a hot topic on Malaysian social media. Netizens took to social media to complain about the rising costs of daily necessities such as poultry and vegetables. The online chatter provides some insights not only about Malaysians’ grievances about the increasing prices, but more crucially, their dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the situation.

A graph showing the number of netizens’ mentions about inflation from 1 November 2021 to 15 December 2021 on Twitter. The data input of this graph includes keywords like harga naik (price increase), inflasi (inflation), and related configurations of such keywords.

As evident in Figure 1, there was a spike in the number of mentions about inflation from 23 to 27 November 2021. This was partly due to government and news reports about the exponential rise in prices of daily necessities. For example, on Twitter, Malaysian newspaper Harian Metro published an infographic summarising the increases in vegetable prices (see Figure 2). The tweet received 9,418 retweets and 7,247 quoted retweets, where many bemoaned the government’s handling of prices of food staples.  

An infographic posted by Harian Metro on 24 November 2021, with the caption ‘The Price of Vegetables Increases (Per Kilogramme).’ This infographic became a talking point and a reference for other tweets when discussing inflation.

Twitter netizens brought up another important issue regarding inflation — wages were not increasing in tandem with inflation. Many pointed out that wages have been kept low for many years while the cost of living has steadily increased. The top tweets about inflation with the most engagements (retweets, likes, and replies), including one by Bernama’s Faizal Hassan, received 18,000 retweets which lamented the issue of wages. Many emphasised that wages, especially the minimum wage, have been low for the past few years. Two of the most common phrases mentioned (see Figure 3) when discussing rising prices were ‘min salary (sic)’ and ‘rate gaji’ (wage rates).

A word cloud of the most used phrases by Twitter netizens when discussing inflation, computed from tweets from 1 November 2021 to 15 December 2021. These tweets include keywords like harga naik (price increase), inflasi (inflation), and related configurations of such keywords.

To its credit, the government sought to engage with netizens on the issue. The Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs (KPDNHEP) is the main body entrusted with ensuring that prices are kept reasonable for consumers. Since 22 November 2021, it has made many posts about the issue. Several posts urged consumers to shop smarter, such as by using the KPDNHEP’s mobile application that allows users to compare prices between shops. The ministry’s posts also sought to clarify the extent of inflation and to fact-check viral posts, such as those that claimed that the price of vegetables had tripled. However, these ministry’s social media posts were met with a lot of flak.  On Twitter, many users retweeted tweets describing KPDNHEP’s social media posts as a form of ‘clownery’ and called the KPDNHEP a ‘waste’ of government resources.

Another one of the most popular phrases retweeted was ‘not y’all gaslighting’, which referred to a tweet about how the KPDNHEP has shifted the blame onto the rakyat for the rising costs of goods. The netizen pointed out how a KPDNHEP infographic blamed shop owners’ greed and monopolisation for the increase in prices. This is untrue because there were many testimonies by shopkeepers and other authorities that cited reasons like poor weather and an increase in the cost of production for the price hike. Netizens also trained their ire on politicians’ handling of the situation. For example, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri made several Facebook posts addressing inflation, only to be countered with criticisms of his government.

While rising prices of imports are not entirely in the government’s control, they failed to address the factors which are in their control, such as effectively communicating the true causes of the price hike.

According to shop owners as well as the authorities, the root causes for the price hike were external factors such as the increase in prices for imported fertilisers, petrol, and environmental factors like constant bad weather.  Such factors affected the prices of vegetables and poultries, many of which are domestically produced (Figure 4). Hence, controlling prices is not a straightforward issue. The prices of domestically-produced goods rose because the prices of their imported inputs had become costlier (and are not easily controllable by the government). Meanwhile, Malaysia had in 2020 imported around RM55.5 billion of food like chilli and mutton as well as commodities like cooking oil. These products experienced a price hike from overseas producers and hence limits much of the KPDNHEP’s ability to control their prices effectively.

In the interim, the government has come up with several short-term solutions to tackle the price hike such as importing 200 container loads of chicken and stopping fish exports. Such a solution aims to temporarily increase the supply of food to reduce scarcity, therefore helping to establish some control over the prices. Nonetheless, these solutions are only short-term in nature because they do not tackle the root causes of the price hikes.

An infographic released by the Department of Statistics Malaysia in 2020, showing the self-sufficiency ratio (SSR) of the agricultural commodities in Malaysia. The SSR indicates how much of the supply of commodities is derived from its domestic production and can also be seen as the extent to which a country relies on its own production resources.

Despite the government’s efforts to respond to the situation, it has little online approval of its handling of inflation and problems associated with the rising costs of living. It could be said that the government failed on two counts: to communicate the deeper causes behind the price hikes, and coming up with policies to either rein in price hikes or tackle the issue of stagnating wages. While the former is not entirely in the government’s control, they have failed to address the latter, which is in fact within their control.

Much of the attention that the rakyat, the media, and the authorities gave to inflation has now been diverted towards the floods which have ravaged several parts of Malaysia since 16 December 2021. While it is a different issue, the social media posts exhibit similar sentiments, where netizens flayed the government for its slow and inadequate flood response. The floods have added another line of attack for netizens to criticise Putrajaya’s handling of inflation.

2022/19