Home 2009: 6 We demand development and democracy

We demand development and democracy

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Francis Loh observes that more and more Malaysians are demanding both development and democracy. The deepening of democracy in Malaysia requires the consolidation of a two-coalition political system.


On 21 August 2009, a ‘Forum Perdana’ was held in the Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang, Penang, to honour Teoh Beng Hock, who was found dead after having been interrogated by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for more than 10 hours (beginning from 5.00pm on 15 July to 3.45am the next day). Teoh, a political aide to Ean Yong Hian Wah, a Selangor State Exco member, was found on the fifth-floor rooftop of Plaza Masalam, which also houses the Selangor MACC, nine floors above.

The forum was also an opportunity to discuss the circumstances that led to Teoh’s interrogation, namely, a concerted effort by the MACC to look into the alleged misuse of constituency development funds by DAP and PKR elected assembly members in Selangor. The forum called for the setting-up of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate Teoh’s death.

The fact that the forum could be organised at such short notice, and in a government facility like the Kompleks Penyayang, which traditionally was out-of-bounds to opposition parties, speaks volumes for the fact that the Barisan Nasional (BN) is no longer governing Penang. Instead, it is the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) that is now in charge, hence the ease in accessing the Kompleks.  In the event, the hall upstairs which can sit about 2,000 people, was filled to capacity. An equally large mass of people gathered in the foyer downstairs, some seated, the majority standing, watching a giant screen which relayed to these people the proceedings being conducted upstairs. All in all about 5,000 people were present. Similar public meetings including a vigil in front of the Selangor MACC building were also held.

Hopefully, Malaysians shall recognise the political significance of Teoh’s death. Now that the prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has promised to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI), following the completion of the on-going inquest into Teoh’s death, and notwithstanding popular criticism of the limited terms of reference set for the RCI, there will be opportunity to discuss publicly the workings of the MACC.  Newly set up during Abdullah Badawi’s tenure as prime minister, amidst considerable hype that the MACC, unlike its predecessor would be more autonomous and have greater investigative powers, it appears that the MACC’s impartiality and credibility have been compromised in the eyes of many Malaysians.

MACC’s credibility at stake

Malaysians are asking why the MACC is chasing after DAP and PKR elected assembly members in Selangor over alleged misuse of quite ‘mosquito’ amounts of constituency development funds. The explanation offered by the MACC’s deputy commissioner is that complaints have been filed against these PR politicians. If that be the case, what then has happened to the complaints that were filed by PR politicians and other concerned Malaysians in 2008 against previous BN assembly members for the same kind of offences? In one instance, a BN assemblyman had spent almost RM500,000 in Selangor state allocations in 44 days just prior to the 2008 election!

Complaints were also filed against the former assembly members of Kampung Tunku, Kajang and Taman Medan. A media item on 29 July 2009 further reported two cases of suspected fraud uncovered in two Village Development and Security Committees (JKKK) by the Selangor executive councilor in charge of the JKKKs. He had filed reports against the two erring JKKKs several months ago. Yet, in contrast to its investigations into the PR assembly members, the MACC does not appear to be acting with the same lightning speed on these earlier cases involving BN politicians.

Significantly, the MACC has also stated that it might be investigating ‘graft allegations published in a blog against Selangor executive council members Ronnie Liu and Ean Yong Hian Wah…even without a report being lodged by the public’. For ‘if there is a basis for the allegation, a MACC officer may lodge a report with us, thus enabling an investigation’.

If this be the case, the MACC must also investigate how the former Selangor Menteri Besar Dr Mohd Khir Toyo was able to finance the building of his multi-million ringgit house. After all, the MACC had earlier – again with lightning speed – investigated the complaint that current Selangor MB Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim had allegedly committed corruption in the purchase of 46 cows for his constituency and that he had used state funds to maintain his personal car.

However, it is hoped that Teoh’s passing will give Malaysians more food for thought than simply asking questions about the MACC’s impartiality. It is hoped that Malaysians will pause and reflect about the overall conduct of politics in Malaysia. For it appears that too much emphasis is being given to development issues, too little attention to issues of democratisation.

Focus on development

It is not surprising that Malaysians have focused on issues of development rather than on democratising our politics; after all a global economic crisis is looming. President Obama, the EEC leaders and Prime Minister Aso Taro of Japan have all focused attention on the economic crisis too.

Moreover, as I have argued on other occasions, there exists a culture of developmentalism among Malaysians, one that has prioritised rapid economic growth above other values, including democracy. So the emphasis given to issues of economic development by BN leaders and the BN-controlled media, especially following Najib’s takeover as Malaysia’s sixth prime minister, has caused ordinary Malaysians to become more engrossed with development issues once again.

For many ordinary Malaysians, Najib, in contrast to his predecessor Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi,  seems to have given a new impetus to economic development and a sense of dynamism to the country. In order to kick-start the economy at a time of global economic slowdown, Najib first removed previous bumiputera participation requirements in the service sector in order to attract foreign investors. He has also promised to revamp the much abused Approved Permits import scheme which privileged certain individuals and companies with connections to people in high places.

Other related moves were to launch a new pension scheme for the private sector and to offer for sale 20 billion units of Amanah Saham 1Malaysia trust funds for sale to all Malaysians. No doubt, when these initiatives are fully in place, there will be more funds to invest in the local stock market while the Malaysian economy as a whole might become more competitive.

In late July, with much fanfare he also launched the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) with the aim of boosting investments and creating jobs in the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, stretching from Kerteh, Terengganu in the north to Pekan, Pahang in the south which is incidentally Najib’s hometown and electoral constituency.  The local media has hyped up this latest economic initiative that is expected to generate investments worth RM90 billion and create 220,000 new jobs by 2020.

Predictably, the business community has welcomed the setting up of the SEZ and Najib’s other economic policies especially since investors have been promised special incentives including tax exemption for ten years. (That said, it remains unclear how this SEZ will relate to the East Coast Economic Region corridor development plan as contained in the Ninth Malaysia Plan and launched by Abdullah earlier.)

PR state governments lag and slack vis-a-vis development?

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The flip side to the excitement over Najib’s economic initiatives has been growing concern among ordinary Malaysians over the economic performance of the PR governments. It is fair to say that nothing spectacular has occurred on this front, often, in spite of the best efforts of the PR governments. Worse, there have been many complaints that voting in a PR government has not led to any noticeable improvement in the realm of development. For instance, there was much concern in Selangor and Penang that the state government had allowed building projects in steep hill slopes (that contravened the 2002 guidelines of the Ministry of Science and Environment), which had been approved by the previous BN governments, to go ahead instead of halting them.

Let me focus on some major criticisms that have been hurled at the PR government in Penang. Due to this reluctance to arrest such steep hill slope projects, severe mudslides had occurred in several parts of Tanjung Bungah and along the Tanjung Bungah-Batu Feringghi coastal road resulting in much inconvenience for residents and road users, financial losses, and threats to lives.

The Tanjung Bungah Residents Association (TBRA) has been particularly vocal on this matter and had lobbied the local authority to issue the necessary ‘stop work order’ against the responsible developers. Although such orders were issued belatedly, blasting and land development work has continued, which led the TBRA to accuse the authorities of a sheer lack of serious monitoring of the situation, and also insinuating that perhaps corruption was involved.

A related complaint, also by the TBRA, was over the state government’s approval of more high-rise projects on the beach front. There was general agreement between the two parties that higher densities were allowed in Penang’s ‘first corridor’ and that there would be lower densities allowed in the ‘second corridor’. The disagreement arose due to differences over where the boundary between the two corridors stood. As a result of the Penang state government’s delineation of that boundary beyond Tanjung Bungah village, there will now be even more 41-storey high-rises on the Tanjung Bungah beach front.

Another complaint that made the headlines concerned the proposed construction of four new high-rise buildings in the heritage zone of George Town which threatened to jeopardise the city’s recent acquisition of Unesco world heritage status. Of these four projects, three had been approved by the previous BN government while a fourth was approved by the new PR government.  Although the chief minister, Lim Guan Eng, finally imposed the necessary height limits and ordered all four developers concerned to scale down their projects accordingly, the Penang Heritage Trust argued that the PR state government should have acted more decisively in the first instance.

And of course, there has been much criticism over the state government’s inability or reluctance to invoke certain provisions in the land laws to reverse the acquisition of Kg Buah Pala or High Chaparral by the Koperasi Pegawai Kerajaan Negeri Pulau Pinang. The cooperative, along with the developer, Nusmetro Venture Sdn Bhd, is planning to evict the Indian community there who are able to trace their roots back to three to four generations. Although the approval of the project was concluded before the PR state government came to power, and in spite of its various attempts to resolve the matter, criticism of the PR government persisted, not least because many outsiders – Hindraf, MIC, the federal government, and the former chief minister, Koh Tsu Koon – appeared to be forcing the issue.

The upshot of all these is that the Penang state government stands accused of being too friendly to the developers and not concerned enough about ordinary people, the environment and heritage – not unlike how many perceived the previous BN government. Why bother, therefore, to push for change if things don’t change at all?

Political constraints circumscribing development by PR state governments

While these are pertinent criticisms, it is important to keep in mind the larger political picture as well. In fact, political constraints had circumscribed the development capacity of the PR state governments. In defence of the PR state governments, three explanations might be offered.

First, is the problem of a politicised bureaucracy. Having served under a BN government for more than 50 years, it was predictable that the federal, state and even the local government bureaucracies would be uncooperative, sometimes hostile, towards the PR executives. This was particularly true of PTD (Adminstrative and Diplomatic Service) officers who were appointed to top positions in the state bureaucracy by the federal government. PR leaders have complained about the heads of their legal, financial, land and mines, and Islamic affairs departments, the local authority bosses as well as district officers, who posed all kinds of problems to the new governments. In some cases, fortunately, the new PR governments have been able to appoint PTD officers of their own choice, upon the retirement or transfer of incumbent officers.

But this is only one aspect of the problem. For as a result of the politicisation of the bureaucracy, slack and incompetence have crept in. Numerous officers who are not competent have been promoted on account of their loyalty to the BN. It follows that they cannot be competent supervisors of lower echelon civil servants. This is no secret! The point is that politicisation has resulted not only in a pro-BN bureaucracy but one that is riddled with incompetency as well. Hence it is not surprising that even when ‘stop work orders’ have been issued, developers dare to continue with their activities.

Apart from this, the state bureaucracy operates alongside the federal one that only takes orders from the federal ministries. The relationship between the PR-state governments and the departments of education, consumer affairs, MIDA, even health, tourism, culture and welfare have remained tense even now, more than 17 months after the change of government. The lightning speed with which the MACC, a federal agency, has conducted itself vis-à-vis the allegations of corruption among PR politicians is a reminder of this polarisation between the federal and the state authorities

Moreover, activities organised by state governments have been boycotted by these federal departments too. And since the federal departments have access to more funds than do their state counterparts, the federal departments often organise their own functions and projects to outdo those conducted by the latter, often in the same areas.

Second, the PR state governments are hampered by a dire shortage of development funds. Under the Federal Constitution, the federal government has sole jurisdiction over the disbursement of development funds. It is only obliged to provide two major grants to the state governments, namely the ‘capitation grant’ which is based on the population size, and the ‘state road grant’, which helps the state to maintain their network of roads but which is in effect a grant that takes into consideration the geographical size of the state.

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Apart from these two grants, there are about 10 other shared taxes and levies that the state is allowed to collect or where the federal government has to reimburse the state (see my article in AM vol 28 no 4 for more details). In a state like Penang which has very little access to land and forest, and does not possess any petroleum or mineral resources, all of which fall under the purview of the state, the total revenue raised by the state is small and can only cover operating expenditure. Hardly any funds are left for development purposes!

In the ‘Restructuring and Reshaping Penang’ conference held in June 2009, two distinguished economists revealed that the Penang state government’s annual budget is less than half that of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s, which became flushed with funds after being awarded ‘apex’ status. The point is that the economic performance of the PR governments, especially that of the Penang government, has been severely handicapped by a dire shortage of funds under the centralised system of fiscal federalism, which characterises Malaysia. No doubt, a fairer redistribution of development funds to the states must be at the top of the PR’s agenda, if and when they come to power in Putrajaya.

And third, it is most unfortunate for the PR state governments that they have come to power in the midst of a global economic crisis, for which they are not responsible. As well, in many instances, a large proportion of the state executive councillors have very limited capacity in handling economic problems. Many of the more experienced PR politicians who have a better grasp of issues of governance, including dealing with the politicised bureaucracy, are not involved in the PR state governments. For they had contested for parliamentary seats rather than for state assembly ones. It has therefore been a fast learning curve for the less experienced, often first-time, politicians appointed to executive councillor posts. Given the global economic crisis, the politicised bureaucracy, the lack of development allocations to the state, many of the PR state governments have underperformed.

Skeletons in the closet

Instead, one of the major undertakings of the PR governments appears to be trying to expose the BN skeletons that have been hidden in the closets over the past 50 years. As mentioned earlier, the Selangor state government has been unearthing skeletons, examples of which include the following:
•    the previous BN assembly members’ disbursement of millions of ringgit worth of constituency development;
•    suspected incidents of corruption in the JKKKs;
•    the disappearance of funds raised by Balkis, the welfare organisation established by the wives of BN politicians; and
•    the incredibly lucrative deals offered to politically connected companies which won the concessions to supply water to the state government.

In Penang, chief minister Lim Guan Eng has highlighted several so-called ‘suspicious’ financial dealings that the BN state government had been involved in. The sale of Kg Buah Pala prime land way below market rates to the Koperasi Pegawai-pegawai Kerajaan Pulau Pinang is a case in point. On another occasion Lim queried why the former government had agreed to give M33.18 million as ‘advance payment in the form of a loan’ to IJM Corp Bhd for the Jelutong Expressway project in a 1997 agreement when it had already given IJM land for the project costing RM672.2 million. More confusing was the fact that IJM owed the state RM24.1 million for payment of the 132 hectares, which was supposed to be settled only after the state had given the advance.

And then there was the depletion of almost RM224 million of the Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP)’s reserves from 1999 to 2005. A portion of these funds was used to construct infrastructure such as markets, drainage systems and bus stations. But apparently, each assembly member was also allocated some RM350,000 in constituency development funds to spend each year, while each of the MPSP councilors were allocated RM40,000 every year. Have all these funds been fully accounted for?

In many cases, there is not enough evidence to confirm whether graft had occurred. Hence the new PR governments have repeatedly requested the former BN leaders to come forward to help the new PR governments to conclude investigations of these suspicious dealings. In the event, such cooperation has not been forthcoming. Instead, the former BN chief minister, Koh Tsu Koon, has accused Lim of ‘making irresponsible allegations and accusations’ against him and challenged Lim to ‘start acting like a chief minister’ instead, implying that Lim ought to get on with the job of promoting development.

Towards democratisation

In fact, it is important to expose these skeletons in the closet. There is also nothing wrong in providing all the fine details of suspicious financial dealings like what occurred in the Port Klang Free Zone, or the disbursement of large amounts of constituency development funds just prior to elections. Likewise, fine details about deaths in police custody and selective MACC interrogations of witnesses that run into the middle of the night, though frightening sometimes, are to be welcomed. Indeed, many of these recent revelations suggest that Malaysia is really not that different from its neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. For bribery and corruption seem to be as widespread, while abuse of power by those in power appears equally severe. Perhaps these abuses were not that evident previously because of rule by a single party for more than fifty years. Awareness of such incidents therefore might persuade us never again to allow any one party to lord it over us for so long a time.

Accordingly, the PR state governments as well as the BN federal government should be evaluated not only on the basis of their development performance per se, but whether they have facilitated democratisation as well.

In this regard, let us be very clear what democracy entails. It does not simply refer to the regular holding of free and fair elections. Rule of law must prevail which in turn requires checks and balances among the three branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Democracy must also lead to the decentralisation of power from the centre to the local levels via mechanisms to hold local authorities accountable; this is important because it is at this lowest third tier that ordinary people can intervene most meaningfully in decision making. At any rate, government must legislate laws that protect the people’s rights while formulating policies that cater for their interests. Finally, a common sense of citizenship with a single class of rakyat must prevail in any democracy. A democracy is certainly not a government for the elites, nor one for a particular ethnic or religious group. Yes, it must also cater for women and youths too.

Viewed from this perspective, Malaysia still has a long way to go. During Dr Mahathir’s time, it was the regular holding of elections, never mind that the SPR was partisan and that the elections were often conducted unfairly, that was the bench mark of Malaysia’s democracy. During Abdullah Badawi premiership, following Mahathir’s departure, various political reforms were launched. These included the appointment of several maverick individuals like Zaid Ibrahim and Shahrir Samad into his cabinet. He also launched a Royal Commission to investigate the workings of the Police force which subsequently called for the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC). He refocused attention on the civil servants, increased their salaries, but also attempted to imbue in them a new sense of service to the rakyat. He created the MACC too to replace the even more toothless ACA. In contrast to Dr Mahathir’s proclamation of Malaysia as an Islamic state, Abdullah promoted Islam Hadhari, based on Islamic civilisational principles instead.

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Thanks to Abdullah’s opening up of the political system, the rakyat, already egged on by Reformasi a decade earlier, made their voices heard, as the government had asked them to. Some parts of the mainstream media also conducted investigative journalism and exposed various wrongdoings on the part of the politicians, civil service and the police; hence the demand for greater transparency, more accountability, and protests against the privatisation of water, perennial hikes in tolls and rates, and other injustices.

However, Abdullah’s intended reforms were not allowed to develop further due to severe structural constraints inherent to the centralised political system first put into place by Mahathir. For instance, the police opposed vigorously the setting up of the IPCMC. And in early 2008, yet another case of death in custody, that of Kugan’s, occurred. In the event, the success of the opposition parties in the March 2008 elections led to increased pressure for Abdullah’s ouster.

With his departure in early 2009, Abdullah’s attempted reforms have remained stillborn, and in some cases have been reversed. Those who have vested interests in the existing system have resorted to the old politics of ethnicity and patronage to try and hijack not just Abdullah’s reforms, but the emergence of a new politics based on principles and on good governance. Consequently, the old politics of the Mahathir era continues to haunt us, with one difference.

Towards a two coalition system

Like it or not, we have a stronger opposition in Parliament and several PR-led state governments. Among other things, the BN federal government has been forced to answer questions on a whole host of issues posed by the new PR MPs, many very dedicated, and some very intelligent. Surely this is a reason for the BN government’s preparedness to pursue quite thoroughly and unprecedentedly, the Port Klang Free Zone fiasco. And of course, it has also promised a review of the ISA, not that previous prime ministers did not made similar promises.

The capture of the five state governments by the opposition has further facilitated accountability at the state-level. No wonder so many skeletons have been exposed. The public has also become more aware and more concerned about competency and accountability at this level of government too, whereas, state-level politics and administration hardly attracted the attention, let alone the excitement of the rakyat previously, except in Sabah and Kelantan. The new interest in state level politics has also directed attention to the highly centralised federal system which prevails in Malaysia, in contrast to the practice of federalism elsewhere. Constitutional reform to decentralise power, funds and decision-making must be put on the agenda next.

The appointment of opposition and some independent councillors to the local authorities in the PR-led states has also restored a sense of ownership on the part of ordinary Malaysians over these local authorities. In this connection, it is most welcomed that the Penang State government has taken several strides towards restoring Local Government Elections. On 11 Aug 2009, the Penang State Assembly passed a resolution calling upon the BN federal government to amend the necessary federal laws to facilitate this end. The BN assembly members, on the other hand, staged a walkout on the matter.

More scope for manoeuvring in the non-formal realm of politics has opened up as a result of a stronger opposition in formal politics. For instance, opposition against the ISA has never been as vigorous as now. On 1 Aug, several thousand Malaysians converged in downtown KL to call for the repeal of the obnoxious ISA. In Penang, Selangor and Perak at least, a series of anti-ISA vigils were held over several months in 2008. Significantly, people of all races and from all walks of life, not only ‘the usual NGO suspects’ were present. No doubt, a new discourse and practice of participatory democracy has been promoted as an offshoot of a stronger PR in parliament and in the state assemblies. NGO activists who have struggled for a more democratic and just Malaysia will readily acknowledge that the tempo towards democratisation has been stepped up recently, as opposed to the snail pace it progressed while the NGOs were in the forefront of the struggle. This is a recognition of the greater influence of party-based electoral politics in a place like Malaysia.

Put another way, we need to transform the UMNO-BN dominated political system into a two-coalition one. Hence, in spite of their lags and slack in promoting development, and bugger all, notwithstanding their squabbles with one another, critical support for the PR parties is important at this juncture. That said, it behooves the non-partisan NGOs, the alternative media and Malaysians who desire democracy to struggle for the creation and consolidation of an autonomous public sphere, free from the control of any political party; one that allows for alternative views of development and democratic participation to be aired and debated.

It is therefore hoped that Teoh Beng Hock’s death will help us to refocus attention on politics – on how the political machine (including the MACC), dominated and manipulated by the BN government for some 50 years, remains intact 17 months after the March 2008 election. But an appreciation is also needed of how voting in a stronger opposition into Parliament and the establishment of the PR state governments have also facilitated democra-tisation in Malaysia. The deepening of democracy in Malaysia requires the consolidation of a two-coalition political system. But there is need to maintain an autonomous public sphere, free from the stranglehold of the parties too.

Dr Francis Loh is Professor of Politics in Universiti Sains Malaysia and Secretary of Aliran.

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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