Francis Loh explores two major areas where reforms have been lacking: education and local democracy.
More than eight months after the 2018 general election, it is praiseworthy that the Pakatan Harapan government has systematically and quite single-mindedly pursued those involved in the 1MDB scandal and several other cases of corruption including those involving Felda and Tabung Haji.
It is also noteworthy that the former prime minister and his wife, the deputy prime minister, and several other former ministers will soon be in the docks in the course of the coming year.
The Goods and Services Tax has also been got rid of and replaced with the Sales and Services Tax. We also got a new attorney general and a new Bank Negara head and replaced the heads of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the Electoral Commission, etc. Not a few new CEOs have been appointed to head government-linked companies.
Yes, some measures of regime change are evident.
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But many other promises made by Pakatan Harapan remain unaddressed. The Aliran New Year message says that change has been tough and slow in coming and suggests perhaps that the shortcomings are due to the lasting effects of 60-plus years of Barisan Nasional rule. Not easy to remove all those remains of kleptoctacy, ethnic polarisation and the culture of serving the leaders first, rather than the rakyat.
Throughout these past eight months, civil society groups like Aliran have offered support and encouragement – and criticism and rebuke, on occasion. This balancing of support with criticism must continue – as must our engagement with concerned groups.
That aside, the New Year message reminded us of the longer term goal of building a Malaysia Baru, where All are embraced and no one gets left behind, where People are always placed first, before Profits. Check out the statement if you haven’t yet.
Reforming the education system
Two or three major issues have been highlighteed on our website over the past few weeks.
First, perhaps because school has just reopened, we have two articles on education. Adrian Lee reminds us that many voted in a new government because they wanted a better education system for our youth.
For too long, the education system has focused on examinations and preparing our pupils to answer examination questions. In fact, parents have given primary attention to ensuring that their children ‘score’ or do very well in the UPSR, SRP, SPM and STPM examinations.
Worse, the ‘tuition’ classes that parents send their children to are simply sessions to prepare the children for those public examinations, nothing more, nothing less. The ‘good’ tuition teacher is somebody who has been marking public examination scripts and who can ‘spot’ forthcoming examination questions.
Adrian Lee is adamant that we revamp the system to make our youth think analytically, so that they will not be misled by others, like Umno-BN did for over six decades. And to think critically too, including about what others say about other people who are different from us and about remembering others being left behind. Read his article here.
Check out the web specials where three academicians Lai Suat Yan, Zaharom Nain and Faisal S Hazis, the latter two also Aliran executive committee members, discuss whether local universities are in crisis; whether we shall see greater academic freedom for academic staff and students; the need to get rid of the Universities and University Colleges Act ; and yes, the performance of the new education minister thus far.
All three academicians are active members of the academic association called Gerak. And these web specials have been culled from Let’s Talk with Sharaad Kuttan, the new talk show on current affairs appearing on Astro Awani.
Yes, the new education minister has met with Gerak leaders and other academicians on other occasions. He has been accessible but there has been little reform thus far on the education front, at least at the tertiary level.
Decentralising and bringing back local government elections
The second issue, where no progress has been made either, is the matter of local government elections. The Pakatan Harapan manifesto promises to “deepen local democracy”, which presumably means that the new administration will bring back local government elections.
The first disappointment was when the newly appointed minister in charge of local government announced that it might take up to three years before elections could be held! Worse, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad then said his government would not be bringing back local government elections because it is a sensitive issue.
Read the article by Ramon Navaratnam, the chairman of the Asli Centre of Public Policy Studies, also an Aliran member, on this topic.
Read also the statement by Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia, a national coalition of NGOs primarily concerned with promoting inter-ethnic dialogue, of which Aliran is a member organisation.
Our prime minister should know better.
This trend towards decentralisation is globally recognised by the UN’s development arms and the World Bank and by academicians and practitioners of development.
This trend has been occurring throughout the world, in both developed as well as developing countries. The list includes South Africa, Ethiopia, post-war Iraq, Mexico, Brazil, India, Australia, Canada, Australia, the countries of the European Union especially Germany and Switzerland, as well as countries like the UK and South Korea, as well as the Philippines and Indonesia, which are not federal countries.
It is well known that ordinary people identify more with local and state governments than with central governments, usually located far away.
Decentralisation also fosters good governance, provided that we also promote competency, accountability and transparency (or CAT) principles.
State-level and, even more so, local-level governments are more aware of local complaints and problems and are often more responsive to local needs. Social scientists call this local knowledge. Hence the planning and delivery of goods and services can also be more easily attuned to local needs.
On the other hand, it is difficult to make the central government more accountable and responsive. Not least, they might not be aware of, let alone understand, local needs. In fact, central governments operating far away from the rakyat, even more than local and state governments, will be more easily subjected to elite capture, cronyism and corruption, as we have seen in the previous Umno-BN government.
Decentralisation is also in line with the principle of subsidiarity, a key concept in federalism. This can be plainly defined as the practice of disallowing the central government from taking over or monopolising a particular task – say, delivering water supply or electricity, running public transport services or even schools and universities, if the task can be performed efficiently and economically by a lower level of government. In democracies which believe in decentralisation, these utilities and services are performed by the local municipality or state authority, rather than by the central government.
Because decision-making is localised, there exists opportunities for community involvement in planning, monitoring and implementation because the community can identify with the policy and with the decision-makers.
Finally, decentralisation should also be accompanied by the reinstatement of local government elections. It allows the community to participate in and take possession of government machinery, and to appoint and/or get rid of local politicians who are ‘no action, talk only’ or cakap tak serupa bikin.
Local government elections, therefore, are very much in line with our aspiration for a Malaysia Baru, a reason why we elected Pakatan Harapan into government in the first place.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
16 January 2019