Thursday, 29 July 2010

Less talk, more debate please

This article was published in Brave New World (The Star) on 29 July 2010. However, the passages in red were taken out. I post here the article in its original form.


The recent news that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Malaysia has dropped so much that it is now the lowest in ASEAN is worrying to say the least. Rather unsurprisingly the brother of the Prime Minister, head of a major bank, cautioned against panic and suggested that there be a thorough investigation into the matter to find the root causes and to determine if there is really cause for alarm.

This all sounds very reasonable and level headed except of course that we have a history of sweeping studies that are unpopular to the powers that be under the carpet. Take for example the findings by the Centre for Public Policy Studies in 2006 which put forward the argument that Bumiputra Equity had exceeded the target set by the NEP.

Faced by a tidal waste of government protest and the lack of support from parent organisation ASLI, the Director of CPPS resigned. Amidst the denials and crass accusations (it was insinuated that the findings of the CPPS was a non-Malay plot), what we did not get was a public debate on the issue.

So, it is well and good that the PM’s little brother wants a proper examination of the issue, but really, can we expect a thorough and open debate? We are faced with some serious economic questions but I do not think that the powers that be would want hard questions being asked and answered, and in this matter, hard questions and answers are exactly what’s needed.

And this is what worries me about the nation at the moment. We have real problems but we are still stuck on a mindset that is not helpful and is in fact counterproductive. Take for example the New Economic Measures (NEM). It would be unfair to say that it was a complete load of cobblers. Admittedly some of the ideas are taken pretty much wholesale from the Pakatan agenda, for example the bits regarding helping the bottom 40% of the society based on poverty as opposed to ethnicity, however I suppose one should take good ideas wherever one finds them.

However, back to my point: in its analysis of the economic situation in the country the NEM does concede that there are tough issues that need to be done away with in order to ensure future economic health; such as rent seeking and corruption, as well as race based policies leading to a brain drain.

If one were to look at this document alone, then one might feel that the “hard questions” mentioned above are at last being asked and following that there should be some equally hard answers. Still, it is one thing to talk the talk, quite another to walk the walk. And it strikes me as odd that in a time when we are economically vulnerable and when we should be looking at what is best for the country as a whole, we still get acres of print space being dedicated to ideas like “Malay Unity”.

Both the PM and the DPM have been talking about this “Malay unity” thing. First and foremost, I have no idea what they mean by the term. United for what purpose and perhaps more importantly united against whom?

Of course at the heart of it, what they must surely mean is united in the support of one political power. This is a repulsive notion as it flies in the face of democratic freedoms and it also has serious racist implications. After all, why should people be united based on ethnicity? If one wants to talk about unity, shouldn’t it be based on common endeavour, or ideology?

We are on the verge of what could be yet another serious economic crisis, and although official policy seems to point towards a more rational approach doing away with antiquated ideas based on race; the political reality is that race is still foremost on the minds of those in charge. I would have thought that the depressing news of having less FDI than the Philippines would wake us up to the reality that for the good of the nation, we need all our best people working for all the people. Instead those in charge appear stuck in that tiresome mire of caring more about hanging on to political power by using the basest of philosophies.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Important to have free access to data

Brave New World (The Star)
15 July 2010

Only with accurate information being freely available can the rakyat play a meaningful role in ensuring government decisions will have a positive effect on their lives.


THE Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) tabled in the Selangor assembly this week is the first major legislative action taken by the Pakatan Rakyat state government, and it is an important one.
It is, in my opinion, the first time they have taken a substantive step — by which I mean more than mere rhetoric — to show an ideological divide between themselves and Barisan Nasional.
The FOI, if it is passed, is a law that will enhance and strengthen one of the people’s fundamental liberties; specifically Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which is about the freedom of expression.
The right to information is an integral part of the right to expression because it is near impossible to voice your views with any authority if information is denied to you.
If the FOI lives up to its promise and works on the philosophy that information as a matter of course will be released, then it should make a real difference to the rights of the residents of Selangor.
Their participation in governance will then become much more meaningful.
And this is the second reason why this bill is so important. To achieve good governance, two of the key ingredients are ac­­countability on the part of authority and meaningful participation by the citizens. In one swoop the FOI can enhance both.
When information is available freely, it is harder to hide wrong-doings and corruption, too, becomes more difficult to practice.
Human beings are flawed and because of our flaws we shall always be vulnerable to temptation. It is hard to change people’s character but what one can do is to ensure that the system within which they operate does not give them free reign to indulge in the baser parts of that character.
A system which is transparent and promotes accountability does just that.
With regard to participation, citizens will need the necessary data to take part meaningfully in any discussion regarding actions that will affect their lives.
Sometimes this information will be used in an ad hoc manner, for example in formulating a criticism over forestry policy.
Other times it can be used as part of an established system of public participation, for example through the provisions in the Town and Country Planning Act allowing for the public to give their viewpoints to the planning authority.
There are basically two avenues through which this can be done. The first is if there is a development project in your immediate neighbourhood; the second is when the entire town or district is given the opportunity to comment on the Draft Structure Plan for their area.
Both avenues will be made more effective if the people have access to information.
I certainly hope this law will become reality although I realise it may take some time to be passed and, more importantly, to be operational.
In the meantime, there are other things that the Selangor government can do to make information more freely available.
To my understanding, during the consultation period for draft structure plans, local authorities actually note down and consider public opinion. If this is true, then it is very good practice indeed.
However, it will only be truly meaningful if the people are in the know about this practice.
In other words, this process must be made known to the general populace so that they can see whether their opinions are taken into consideration.
Another thing that the Selangor government can do is to introduce a more people-friendly modus operandi with regard to consultation processes.
If there is going to be a large-scale consultation process involving the planning authority, then tell us via our cukai pintu letters.
After all, you are going to post us those letters asking for our money anyway.
It is true that the FOI is limited to Selangor and the activities which are within the jurisdiction of the state government.
Be that as it may, that still covers a lot of issues concerning the people living in this state. The FOI is welcome indeed and I hope it is passed.
This combined with better practices in the day-to-day government operations will go a long way in showing that Pakatan means business when they say they are concerned about more rights, more democracy and good governance in this country.

Friday, 2 July 2010

It’s democracy and not derhaka

Brave New World (The Star)
1 July 2010

It is one thing to have a populace that does not quite understand the full extent of their democratic rights, it is quite another to have leaders perpetuate a feudalistic atmosphere to keep their grip on power.


After the 2004 general election, the newly chosen MP for Putrajaya was being interviewed on the telly. He was obviously very happy with the result – his chubby face was glowing. The Barisan had won big in that particular constituency.
His happiness was understandable but his explanation for the victory, however, was a little bizarre. He said the reason Barisan won the seat so easily was because Putrajaya was home to mainly civil servants. In other words, it was expected that these people will vote for the “govern­­ment”.
Two points of clarification should be made here. Firstly, the freedom to choose is the right of every single Malaysian, regardless of job description. And secondly people don’t vote for a “government”, people vote for a party which will then form a government.
It’s all pretty basic Democracy 101 type stuff, but I guess for some it’s a lesson which is a little tough to grasp. Not surprising really, consi­dering how terribly feudal our country is.
Why, just today I read that tribal leaders in Sarawak have been warned not to vote for the opposition. The last time I checked, the right to choose belonged to all Malay­sians. I didn’t realise there was a tribal clause.
To a certain extent, I can understand why some people may think that once a party is in power then they deserve undying loyalty. It is a throwback to our days of absolute monarchs, chieftains and the like. You had an allegiance to your ruler, whoever that ruler might be and woe betide you if you were to be rebellious, or to use that most heinous of Malay words “derhaka”.
But times have changed and we are a democracy now. Or so we claim to be. If we are, then this thinking is simply not in line with our rights as citizens to choose our leader and to choose whoever we like as our leader. A feudal system is very much top down whereas a democracy moves the other way.
But like I said, I am not too surprised that we ordinary people may fail to understand and appreciate the power that is in our hands. I’m not surprised because the everyday business of governance in this country is infected with the trappings of feudalism.
Look around you – if you are in any public building, chances are you will see several portraits smiling benignly down at you a la Kim Jong Il. Apart from providing income to a bunch or photographers, printers and framers, I really don’t see the point in having these elected mugs smirking down at me. After all, what is important is the office, not the individual holding that office.
And although our national characteristic is one of politeness and respect, I don’t think it should degenerate to base toadying and brown nosing. It is distasteful to see grown men slobbering, bowing and scraping to elected officials who, let’s face it, are our servants and not the other way round.
Again, in a warped kind of way, I understand why people do this. These big shots have power. But then, even here there is a distortion of how things should be. They have power, that is true, but that power must not be in any way unlimited and the use of that power has to be accountable and transparent.
Because our system of governance lacks transparency and accountability, the amount of power wielded by the few is far too great and this merely feeds into the feudalistic thinking of the society we live in as people will prostrate themselves before someone whom they think can give them reward, regardless whether they should have such power to reward or not.
However, back to the Sarawak tribal chiefs. Michael Manyin, who is the Sarawak Infrastructure Develop­ment and Communication Minister, said in a speech that “tribal leaders are the government’s agents in developing local communities and are not supposed to go against the government”.
This may be true in the daily life of a tribal leader. He will have duties to carry out and he should not do anything to undermine that. However, during election time, there is no longer a “government”. There are only parties vying to be the next government and in that situation, a tribal leader or any other citizen for that matter can choose who they want.
It is one thing to have a populace that does not quite understand the full extent of their democratic rights, it is quite another thing to have leaders perpetuate a feudalistic atmosphere in order to keep their grip on power.
It is about time we realise that this country belongs to all of us, the citizens. It definitely does not belong to elected officials who are at the very most merely managers entrusted with the running of the nation and managers with no security of tenure because we can fire them.
And that is not “derhaka”, that is democracy.