July 22, 2008
“Govern”ments in our country
This is the second piece I wrote for Malaysian Today – again, that free paper distributed around town. Mainly I write this because it’s probably the thing closest to politics that the young readers picking up this entertainment paper would be exposed to. And perhaps if it strikes a chord in them, I’d have done my bit.
Are our Governments “Governing” Well? How Can We Tell?
There has been an overdose of politics in the Malaysian air recently, although most political talk has been reduced to stories akin to murder, sexual and spy stories, gruesome as they may sound. Whilst the newspapers are plastered with story after story on personality battles, Malaysians are actually eager to observe better governance from both state and federal levels.
The reason we call our governments “ ‘govern’ ments” is precisely because there is an inherent expectation that they are to govern, given the mandate bestowed upon them when citizens elect their representatives. The result of the recent March 2008 Elections, for example, is not just that there has been an increase in democratic space for varied representation between the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat.
More importantly, the 2008 Elections spelled out an opportunity for the fellow member on the street – you and I – to be fully cognizant of representatives’ actions and inactions, holding them accountable to their word. Beyond just governance, the emerging trendy term that is used amongst developmental economists and social activists is “good governance”.
Borrowing from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s definition, good governance refers to “the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not)”. Although there is a range of different actors on the playing field of good governance in society, I will focus merely on those related to governments here.
How should regular Joe Public evaluate whether or not BN or PR is practicing good governance across the board? Meaning that, no matter which issue it decides to focus on – be it enhanced public transportation systems, or progressive economic policy, or better infrastructure – governance is a practice that is cross-cutting.
There are a number of technical measurements for good governance, and certainly no one articulation is as formally set in stone as the other. However, for ease of memory and readability (while you the reader scans this paper during your morning coffee and nasi lemak), I shall highlight key categories that international institutions are keen on using.
The first widely accepted component is transparency, or access to information. Many countries have either a Freedom of Information Act, or an Access to Information Act, which Malaysia currently does not have. Civil society is attempting to move this along in Malaysia, but efforts are slow in being realised. Transparency is important in order for members of the public to be better informed and educated.
A very important example is the usually perceived as dry and boring document, the Budget. Budgets are crucial because it holds all financial information about revenues (income) and expenditures (expenses). Local council, state and federal budgets hold a wealth of information but more important is the need for governments to make them publicly and comprehensively accessible.
Information laws would legislate that people have a right to the knowledge that is stored up at government offices. With this knowledge and information at hand, people can then analyse whether money is being spent and managed wisely or not. Several public scandals have been found out using this methodology of exactly this – local people demanding for information and then being empowered to act upon the loopholes they discovered in the process.
A second prominent component of good governance is engaging in a participatory process. This means viewing the whole of society as equally important and holding a stake in the decisions being made. In a given society, the stakeholders (for any major decision) are usually considered to be: residents (and resident associations), rukun tetangga, the media, policy makers (legislature and executive branches), academicians, civil society and non-governmental organisations, religious groups, political parties, and researchers/think tanks. Each person should belong to at least one of these categories.
Whenever an important decision is to be made, it is essential that all necessary parties are given an opportunity to be part of the process. For example, residents in Kuala Lumpur have done an excellent job in critiqueing the draft Kuala Lumpur Plan in detail, ensuring that this is given media coverage, and attempting to engage with the very policymakers that have discretion in altering its details.
While it is not clear as to the process by which the Federal Government incorporates the views of its public stakeholders, it is true that they have attempted to conduct wide public consultation meetings during the Pre-Budget Process. Views from NGOs and a host of groups are called upon to submit policy proposals. However, one criticism is that the list is highly selective and there are numerous groups – most obviously those working directly on civil and political rights – that are left out of consultation. There is also to date, no criteria by which Government decides on how they include inputs.
A genuine participatory approach is reflected through a basic intention of wanting to incorporate consensus into the procedures. Systematic approaches should also be used in informing those whose views were not taken into consideration, giving explicit reasons as to why suggestions were not feasible.
Other elements in this category are the need for inclusive and equitable participation of groups. In a culturally and ethnically diverse country like Malaysia, equitable participation is of utmost importance. Equitable is not the same as equal; a book I read recently reminded me. We would therefore give greater priority to a pregnant lady’s access to a seat on the LRT, compared to a young man although they are both equal human beings. Equitable treatment is injected with a measure of mercy and compassion, values taught to us from a young age.
Equitable treatment means giving aid to those in society who are less fortunate; providing social safety nets to the poor and underprivileged, keeping in mind these should not be predicated on race or religion as defining factors. Doing so would be almost the same as cold-blooded Hitler, who trained doctors to measure patients’ eyes and chins with precise eye-colour-and-chin-length-charts to determine which race to give privileges to and which to discriminate shamefully against. (We all know the result of that story and downfall).
There are numerous other elements that could be discussed, but for the purposes of this article three key components of good governance have been highlighted. If our state governments make announcements of any policy implementation, citizens need to hearken to analyse if these are being done through good governance processes.
Is the respective government being transparent and giving sufficiently reasonable access of information to the public? Is the government engaging in public participation? Is the government demonstrating equitable treatment of all parties? Needless to say, some final benchmarks would be whether or not its policy measures are being efficiently and effectively put into place. There must also be no room for corruption – individual or institutional.
This seems like a tall order to demand of our representatives. But all the same, the highest of benchmarks and standards is needed. After all, the people are the ones in power. And let us not ever forget that.
Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies and she is glad that more young people are keeping our elected representatives on their toes. Find out more information at www.cpps.org.my
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