Decentralisation the way forward?
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 15 Jun 2012
At the launch of my book, “States of Reform: Governing Selangor and Penang” last Saturday, three esteemed panelists, YB Liew Chin Tong (member of Parliament, Bukit Bendera), YB Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad (state assemblypersom, Seri Setia) and Dr Ooi Kee Beng (Deputy Director, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore) took on the increasingly popular, but also controversial, subject of decentralisation of government in Malaysia.
The session was moderated by Fuad Rahmat, Research Fellow at the Islamic Renaissance Front.
It was an honour to have each of them present at the launch.
After the event, I asked friends, relatives and colleagues who attended how they felt about the forum’s discussion.
Those present were either highly enthusiastic over the contents of the session, stating it was an honest reflection of the current state of politics in the country, whilst others felt the speakers were too technical and spoke in jargon not easily understood.
Perhaps it is true those within the public policy circle tend to use a language, accompanied with specific terms, that many are not familiar with.
This does not mean the issues themselves should not be spoken of, or discussed.
On the converse, those with the advantage of access to information, and sufficient time to interpret and decipher such information, are armed with the responsibility of translating these messages to peers and colleagues.
Take decentralisation for example, which in the context of today’s government and politics, simply refers to the act of releasing control from the central government, and passing this on to the lower levels of government.
There are three tiers of government in the country, namely the central, or federal government; state governments; and local government.
In Malaysia, people are elected into government only within the first and second layers, whereas those in the third layer are appointed.
In a time when policy and political competition is at its peak, just prior to the 13th general election, it is almost impossible to make comparisons between the two political coalitions, the Barisan Nasional (Barisan) and Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan), precisely because of the nature of a centralised government in the country.
In South Africa, for example, state governments have control over education policy within their respective states.
This then allows citizens within that particular state to make comparisons with the previous state government on things that matter, and are real to them on a daily basis.
The recent move by the Higher Education Minister, for example, for initially attempting to withdraw all PTPTN (higher education student fund) loans from students at Universiti Selangor (Unisel), is a perfect example of how a highly centralised government currently makes decisions all on its own for students living, and studying. in a state university.
Although they eventually backtracked, this example goes to show the magnitude of power concentrated in a single entity, which then governs all states across the country.
In an ideal world, decentralisation would therefore allow us as voters to pick and choose from a host of different political parties based on their accomplishments in their different state, or local governments.
Just as how libertarians take pride in their utopian world where there is perfect choice in a free market system, likewise such market-based policies would allow for perfect competition amongst voters who are armed with perfect knowledge of the options available to them.
Or so in theory. Despite my personal advocacy for decentralisation, I recognise the challenges that would be faced were this system to be adopted without simultaneous measures being executed.
This is what one of the panelists, Liew, referred to when his condition for decentralisation was that democratisation should take place concurrently.
Meaning that there ought to be full efforts made towards ensuring a free and fair society – a free and independent media, a strong civil society, an independent civil service, and the many other fundamental freedoms many have pushed for in the past. Without these institutions being put into place, it would be fairly difficult to ensure a level playing field despite a more equal distribution of powers between federal and state governments.
One of the interesting questions from the floor was to what extent should we push for decentralisation? Which are the areas which ought to be devolved from the central administration, and distributed to the lower tiers of government?
One could possibly begin with the areas which were formerly of the states to begin with, such as water treatment and distribution, and solid waste management.
The reason the federal govenrment has given for “centralising” these functions is that they can be better and more efficiently managed given financial support comes from them.
The real reason, however, in these two instances, is that these functions have been privatised under lucrative concessions to private companies.
Thus, when centralisation of power takes place, it is only inevitable that there exists a centralisation of decision-making (and contract-selecting) as well.
Although decentralisation may also incur a “decentralisation of corruption”, with the emergence of new local warlords, these problems might just be easier to solve than dealing with large corporations given mega-projects of contracts to handle, which is presently the case.
We are a long way indeed from anywhere near a decentralised government. But we were not always this centralised. And we are, on paper at least, a federalism.
Other federated countries like Australia would be a good case study to learn from, in terms of financial and operational separation of functions.
In all of this, however, it requires political will from both sides, where right now there is insufficient incentive from the incumbent Barisan coalition to want to give up anything, least of all power and control.
Tricia Yeoh is author of “States of Reform: Governing Selangor and Penang”. The book is available at bookstores nationwide, at RM28.