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Economy key in Malaysia's tightest poll

Abdul Majid and family
Image caption Abdul Majid has received government funds aimed at low-income families

In a squatter area of Port Klang, in Selangor state, 500 ringgit a year gets you the odd luxury that makes life a little more bearable.

For Abdul Majid, who is unemployed, it might be a better quality fish to eat for dinner, or not worrying about the bills when his children fall ill.

He has received two cash bonuses of 500 ringgit ($164; £105) each, a government initiative for households where the income is less than 3,000 ringgit a month.

Sitting on a sofa inside his house constructed with sheets of corrugated metal and scrap wood, Mr Majid presses loose tobacco into paper to roll a cigarette.

"We are very grateful to the prime minister for this sum of money," he says looking at his wife and children sitting on the floor.

"As citizens we should be grateful to the government. But we only wish that it could be a more frequent thing," he says.

The coalition government; Barisan Nasional, also know as the National Front, has promised 1,200 ringgit to these families if it wins the coming general election on 5 May. It is the first time in more than 50 years that the ruling party is facing an opposition with enough support to pose a real threat.

Mr Majid's face lights up at the mention of the extra money. In between bouts of coughing he says: "I will repay by fully supporting the government in all its policies".

Temporary boost?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Economists say government domestic investment has fuelled growth

For Mr Majid, and many of the 3.2 million other households that have received government help, the choice may be clear.

However, the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat or People's Alliance, calls it vote-buying and the latest in a long line of policies from the current government that are bankrupting the country.

On many economic indicators, resource-rich Malaysia looks to be performing well, expanding by an average of 6% for each of the last three years under Prime Minister Najib Razak.

His administration put in place the "Economic Transformation Programme" that aims to make Malaysia a high-income country by 2020.

They also promise to balance the budget by that year. Malaysia ran a deficit of 4.5% last year, although it has been narrowing in each year of the current administration.

But the mood in the country doesn't reflect those positive numbers.

Economists here point to the fact that much of the economic growth has been spurred by domestic investment by the government, or government linked companies such as Petronas - a powerhouse of the Malaysian economy.

That makes it more of a temporary boost rather than long-term structural growth. It also pushes up prices and the rising cost of living has been cited as one of the biggest concerns among voters leading up to the election.

Analysts also point to the high debt levels, as a cause for concern. Malaysia's debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is one of the highest in the region at 53%.

Affirmative action that favours the Malay majority (also known as the Bumiputra) in business, jobs and education has resulted in a flight of capital and talent.

The policy was introduced after race riots in 1969 to boost the position of the Malays, who felt the Indian and Chinese minorities in the country were more prosperous.

Economists say Malaysia is suffering from the middle-income trap; unable to compete with advanced economies in innovation and high-value industries, nor with low-wage countries producing cheap goods.

Ask the young and educated what they want from their government and the answer is progress.

"We want more, not just money. We want better infrastructure, education and transparency," says 36-year-old Michael, who did not want to give his last name.

"We want the whole package," he says sipping on a kopi peng (iced coffee) in that oldest of public forums; the coffee shops or Kopitiams as they are called here.

'Why not compete?'

Image caption Yeoh Ken Chong's company can now bid independently for government projects

That call for transparency is echoed in kopitiams across the country. Corruption and cronyism have run rampant for decades and people seem to have had enough.

But some see a glimmer of hope on the picturesque beach-lined island of Penang, where the state government says it has achieved a "paradigm shift" in terms of corruption.

The Democratic Action Party, part of the opposition alliance, holds up this tourism and manufacturing hub as an alternative economic model, and an example of some of the changes they could bring across Malaysia given the opportunity to govern.

Here, the state government, has made party members declare their assets, encouraged civil discourse through a public complaint system and established an open tender policy for government contracts in place of a previous affirmative action system that favoured Bumiputra companies.

And firms, such as Chinese contractor Yuan Seng Building Trading have risen to the challenge of a more competitive environment.

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Media captionVoters are assessing how well the incumbent government has done to revive investment in the nation.

Despite it being a rainy afternoon, their excavation drills are still pounding into the site of a carpark at the Penang Hill Station, a tourist lookout point.

"The old way was you use a connection, you get the job," says Yoeh Ken Chong, head of the company, which won the government tender to upgrade parts of the site.

He says previously his company would partner with a Malay company, which would bid for government contracts. Now they can bid on their own.

"We as a Chinese company are competitive, on pricing we are reasonable and we have vast experience so we can get the tender," he says.

Even Malay contractors are on board with levelling the playing field.

"Why not compete with other races? There's no harm for us. As a Bumi I can assure you the Malays are ready for that," says Tahir Jalaludin Hassan, president of the Penang Association of F-Class Contractors.

The state government claims that this policy has not only made things more transparent but also saved them millions of dollars because of price competition which they have used to make life better for Penangites.

Although doubt has been raised about whether the "Penang model" can be replicated elsewhere, the state government says the basic premises of transparency and clean government are transferable.

It is these qualities that the electorate is increasingly demanding, which is why going into voting day this election remains too close to call.

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