In a State of Reform

27 June, 2012

by Tung Wan Qing

Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim and other VIPs at the book launch

People used to “worship” authority. In those days, there was only one post office in town and people had to walk miles to get connected with the outside world. Concentration of power was the main political strategy at that time.

The 21st century, however, is all about efficiency, integration and collaboration. Decentralization is a process of distributing the decision-making powers to the lower levels of the organization. In the business context, it is like a niche approach focusing on different cities and communities with different needs.

One of the most prominent tactics in practising decentralization of power is through local elections, where local representatives are elected by the local citizens instead of being appointed by the federal government. A bottom-up system that includes public participation and evaluation would therefore enhance trust and accountability in the state-local relationships, hence strengthening the democratization process.

In fact, decentralization is not a new concept in Malaysian politics. According to Tricia Yeoh in her new book “States of Reform: Governing Selangor and Penang”, Malaysia had a healthy practise of local government elections when it was a British colony in the 1850s, only to suspend it in 1965 due to alleged political tension with Indonesia.

Since then, the federal government has consciously rejected the necessity to revive local elections even though official requests have been made by the Selangor and Penang state government.

The reason behind this is obvious. As much as decentralization will undoubtedly weaken the power of the central authority, it brings advantages that will benefit the rakyat and the nation as a whole entity.

Firstly, as the people are exposed to different forms of governance in different states, they could evaluate from the outcomes and place higher expectations to their local governments.

Public pressure and the bottom-up evaluation system would ensure a healthy competitive environment between the states and local governments. When each state works hard to improve their own territory, it will speed up the whole democratization process and lead to a better standard of living for the whole country.

Secondly, it is very reasonable and practical to have state and local governments tackle local issues like traffic congestion or crime instead of practising a single universal policy imposed by the federal government regardless of different internal factors in different states.

By empowering the state and local councils to solve local problems, the federal government could focus on bigger issues, and hence reduce the chances of wasting human resources and doing double work. The state and local governments which have more proximity with the grassroots could also invite local intellectuals and NGO representatives to participate in policy-making. It would be a win-win outcome.

While resulting in higher productivity, accountability, and efficiency in tackling local issues by the local government, decentralization tends to speed up urban development with the federal government investing most of its resources in the capital.

Penang would never have been revived as a cosmopolitan city if there wasn’t a totally new state government to implement a whole new set of ideas and plans despite facing huge obstacles when dealing with the federal government.

We would never know which city could stand out next, if there is no room for the local authority to exercise their powers altogether with the community. The locals know the city best, they know which matter troubles them the most and what can be done to effectively solve it, so let them do it. Simple as that.

In so far as it might look like an ideal concept, there are some “terms and conditions” for this concept to run. The challenges and limitations of decentralization were discussed by panelists at a forum cum book launch at Annexe Gallery on 8th June.

MP for Bukit Bendera, Liew Chin Tong emphasised that decentralisation can only operate succesfully when accompanied by democratisation. State and local governments have to be free from any harm, fear, corruption and interference in the process of policy implementation.

In addition, the mass media has to be fair and square in reporting the news, while civil society and intellectuals have to be included in the decision-making process. Only when all parties function well and independently can decentralization succeed.

There is a risk of facing denial of service from the “upper level” or civil servants from different parties working under the same department. Non-cooperation will result in delay or rejection of a good plan.

The author with MP for Bukit Bendera, Liew Chin Tong at the book launch

The federal government refused to allow Petaling Jaya City Council (MPPJ) to set up an Auxiliary Force in Petaling Jaya to tackle the high crime rate. This goes to show that even the best laid plans would be stuck when there is a disconnect and conflict in federal-state-local relations. Eventually, the rakyat will always be the ones who suffer.

Nonetheless, having decentralization of power is not merely an ideal concept to be discussed in Malaysia. Our country is now marching towards a much more mature level. There are more free and independent alternative media which serve as watchdogs. We have a 50-50 chance and say in the parliament.

Penang and Selangor are two states that have improved so much since the last election by having the autonomy to experience different forms of governance and practices. Most importantly, today the rakyat have become more mature to dare to dream big and make things happen.

Locals have the advantage as compared to some of the civil servants working in federal government departments who do not even know the sentiment on the gound. It is the now the right time to start promoting decentralization, by urging the federal government to return the power to the states and local government, to ensure a more competitive, fair and transparent political culture in Malaysia.

Penang has taken the first step by passing the bill to revive local election last week, the road to decentralization is just around the corner if we are looking at the same direction. -The Rocket

Title: States of Reform – Governing Selangor and Penang

Author: Tricia Yeoh

Price: RM28

Free PDF excerpt here

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