Friday June 15, 2012
Concept that still appeals
ROAMING BEYOND THE FENCE
By TUNKU 'ABIDIN MUHRIZ
The issue of decentralisation has been getting hotter over the years, finding its way into the print and alternative media.
REGULAR readers will have noticed that decentralisation is a favourite recurring theme here.
In my first article in March 2008, I expressed the hope that the historic flavours and identities of our sultanates and states would be re-invigorated by the unprecedented scenario of different political parties across the many different states having to compete to show their effectiveness.
In July 2008, Ideas’ predecessor — the Malaysia Think-Tank, under its Project to Advance Democratic Institutions — together with the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute’s Centre for Public Policy Studies, organised a seminar on Local Council Reforms.
I represented the MTT and Tricia Yeoh represented the CPPS. The word “decentralisation” was still quite novel in Malaysian political parlance then.
Four years later, the core theoretical benefits of decentralisation expressed at that event continue to be repeated: That decentralisation can increase efficiency and provide for better realisation of the people’s wishes.
There were some concerns, however, that having too many elected politicians at different levels of government might make it confusing for citizens (and the elected representatives themselves) unused to the notion of powers being separated across different levels.
Furthermore, the possibility of “decentralised corruption” might lead to even more leakages and wastage of public money.
In the years since, the issue of decentralisation has become ever hotter, finding its way into our newspapers, online media, radio and television. Whereas some years ago few politicians would have considered decentralisation worthy of attention, let alone an actual possibility, today it is almost compulsory for politicians to have an opinion on it.
Furthermore it has, like many other aspects of Malaysian politics, become a polarising issue, to the extent that it is now possible to be accused of supporting one party or another just because one has a certain view on decentralisation.
This has arisen because of state governments’ efforts in pursuing different policies while trying to allay the fears expressed at our seminar. Think-tanks and activists have increased their volume too.
For our part, Ideas has been conducting more seminars on decentralisation and workshops on federalism. Yeoh, on the other hand, became a policy research officer in the Selangor Mentri Besar’s office.
Her book States of Reform has just been published (by Genta Media), and since I could not attend the launch event, I promised her a review instead. Like many of the finest Malaysian books, it comprises articles that the author has written before — in this case, drawn from her column in the Penang Economic Monthly magazine, dating from January 2010 to January 2012.
As such, many of the articles provide intriguing insights to some key events that have occurred in Selangor in the past couple of years. The impasse regarding appointments to the civil service is included, as is the continuing water management issue.
Although the writer cannot be expected to be entirely impartial (nor does she claim to be), the sense of excitement and optimism accompanying the reform agenda that she is witnessing and helping to craft comes across as genuine and palpable. Despite this, she manages to pack each article with extremely useful statistics that would be of interest to many politicos and activists regardless of which side of the political fence they might be on.
The articles are arranged in neat categories such as “Transparency”, “Environment” or “Public Transport”. While some are explicitly related to decentralisation, such as “Local Elections”, “Federal-State Relations” and “Levels of Government”, in reality the theme threads through every single one of the articles, even those entitled “Democratising Women” or “The state of non-Muslims in Penang and Selangor”.
It will be some time before a new equilibrium is reached amongst the trinity of the federal, state and local levels of government in Malaysia, but Yeoh’s book snapshots this state of flux with clarity.
In the meantime, it is heartening to see the political class finally re-engaging with an issue that has been championed by the Malay Rulers consistently for ages: From the objections of the Rulers of the Federated Malay States to ever-increasing centralisation, to the coming together of the Rulers and their people in rejecting the underhanded Malayan Union, and the many individual examples of monarchs who fought to preserve the rights of their states, such as Yamtuan Antah of Negeri Sembilan, Sultan Idris Shah I of Perak, Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor, Sultan Zainal Abidin III of Terengganu, Sultan Badlishah of Kedah and many others.
Oh, and last week, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan signed a pledge supporting the return of oil royalties to his sultanate.
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of Ideas