MAY 19 — Imagine that you live in a remote part of Sarawak. You live a simple life, but many of your basic needs have been neglected. The road that leads to your longhouse is a dirt track full of holes that turns to mud whenever it rains. You rely for water on the river that runs by your longhouse, and for electricity on a diesel generator that runs noisily every evening, generating only enough electricity for few electric lights and basic appliances. You feel frustrated that you lack the basic utilities that Malaysians elsewhere take for granted.
Given finite resources, what should the government spend money on first? A tarred road? Piped water? A hydroelectric dam project, micro-hydro or micro-solar? How do we spend our money, and who should be the ones to decide?
Basic economics dictates that we should first spend our money on the project that would bring the greatest utility, per dollar, to those who might benefit from it. Naturally, those closest to the ground—probably the longhouse inhabitants themselves—would be best placed to know which project is most needed and would most benefit their daily lives.
Of course, some decisions by their nature must be taken at a higher level: a district council may be able to plan and build a local road, but only State or federal authorities can properly plan and build a trunk road or an inter-State highway. This, in a nutshell, is the principle of “subsidiarity”: the principle that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level consistent with effective decision-making.
Despite being a federation of 13 States, each with its own elected State Government, Malaysia is an incredibly centralised country. The budget of all 13 States amounts, by some estimates, to only seven per cent of the federal budget. Over 63 years of Alliance/BN rule, many matters previously handled by local authorities, such as buses, fire services, sewerage and even garbage collection and public cleansing, have in most states moved from local to federal control. In addition, federal infrastructure spending has been heavily concentrated around the federal capital in the Klang Valley, to the detriment of remoter regions such as Kelantan or Sabah and Sarawak.
This concentration of financial resources in the federal government often leads to the wasteful and inefficient allocation of resources. For instance, during the previous administration, a large sum of federal money was allocated to local authorities for the purpose of erecting metal railings, in order to shield pedestrians walkways from snatch-thefts. This ignored the fact that in many parts of the country there are insufficient pedestrian walkways, or even no walkways to begin with. In Penang, some of this money ended up being used, perversely, to erect metal railings around open drains, instead of to cover the drains with disabled-friendly walkways.
Over-centralised decision-making also means that the government tends to adopt one-size-fits-all policies that in the end fit and please nobody. The PPSMI/MBMMBI saga is one example. The previous administration initially imposed a nationwide policy of requiring Mathematics and Science to be taught in English, without regard to the local availability of English-speaking teachers or the wishes of local parents. The policy went too far for many rural parents, who wanted their children to be taught in the national vernacular, and not far enough for others—for instance, in KL, Penang and Sarawak—who wanted the option to have more or all of the syllabus taught in English.
Education policy is just one of the areas that Parliament could easily devolve to state governments, and even to individual schools or districts, while at the same time enforcing minimum standards at the federal level. Decisions such as whether school shoes should be white or black can surely be taken by individual headmasters or parent-teacher associations (PTAs), rather than occupying the valuable time of the federal Minister of Education.
It is no secret that many ministers are struggling to get to grips with their ministries. Devolution of decision-making would allow federal ministers to concentrate their limited time and energy on issues that really matter at the national level. It would also encourage innovation in policy-making, with state and local authorities competing and learning from one another’s policy ideas and experiments, rather than the whole country being forced to follow the same “one-size-fits-none” blueprint.
Decentralisation would also encourage local citizens to participate in local decision-making; for instance, by attending town hall and PTA meetings, or by standing for election to residents associations and local councils, thereby enhancing participation in our democracy.
As the great 19th-century French historian and political scientist Tocqueville wrote, “[L]ocal assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations. Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it”.
Around the world, local democracy encourages independents and serving or retired professionals not tied to national political parties, such as lawyers, architects and engineers, to get involved in local government. This would be a welcome step up from the present crop of “third-class” political appointees—party members who are not competent enough or senior enough to stand for parliamentary or state seats—who are currently tasked with our local governance.
Decentralising and giving local communities control over the matters that affect their daily lives is also one way to de-escalate the controversies of language, race and religion that plague our politics. States and cities such as Kelantan or Petaling Jaya are culturally and demographically more homogenous than the nation as a whole, and are therefore far more able to make decisions on the basis of local consensus. Policies that give rise to controversy in West Malaysia may be totally non-controversial in Sabah or Sarawak. Giving power to local communities allows citizens to have the policies they want without arousing national controversies of racial and religious identity.
Moves towards decentralisation have previously been supported by PH leaders, such as the current finance minister, who, as chief minister of Penang, bridled at the tight reins of the federal government in Putrajaya and passed a local government elections enactment that was later struck down by the federal court. Yet there is little sign that the new PH government is committed to local democracy or the kind of regulatory and fiscal decentralisation that has allowed even unitary states such as China and Indonesia to transform their people’s lives through growth and innovation. Old habits die hard, and giving away power is not something that politicians tend to do voluntarily.
But the PH government must understand that they will fail to deliver on the people’s aspirations if they allow Malaysia to continue to be suffocated by over-centralisation. In order to address the “bread-and-butter” issues that affect voters’ lives, they must abandon the old “one-size-fits-none” approach, and give state and local governments the freedom to come up with local solutions to fix problems in accordance with local needs and aspirations.
Just as importantly, state and local governments must have access to sources of funding such as sales and income taxes that will rise with economic growth, rather than being forced to chop down forests and to reclaim islands from the sea in order to invest in badly-needed infrastructure. It is then, and only then, that our Malaysia Baharu has any hope of living up to its full economic promise and potential.
* Andrew Yong was formerly a special legal officer to the Chief Minister of Penang and a lawyer supporting the Institutional Reforms Committee.
**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.