June 25, 2010

Understanding Federalism

Posted in Selangor, The Cause at 11:43 pm by egalitaria

I am not sure Malaysians are familiar with the concept of federalism. When the 10th Malaysia Plan referred to the word “Federalism”, I had to stifle a laugh because they simply did not seem to get it right. Instead of recognising the autonomy of States (like Selangor, Perak, Penang and so on) to have their legitimate control over areas that are defined constitutionally… they used the term to refer to the transfer of power from state to the Federal Government. Authors of the document, wake up! What you refer to is actually centralisation of power. Not a very healthy trend of democracy, if I may say so myself.

But it’s alright. You guys can go ahead and centralise solid waste management. People may end up paying higher fees if the one private company you choose eventually has to hire other sub-contractors, creating greater layers and in effect making people pay more. You’re probably going to get people to be more dissatisfied.

But hey, not everyone on our side understands Federalism too. There is an interesting post by a friend entitled “Khalid Ibrahim and his enemies” here. His two points raised are interesting, which are below, followed by my thoughts on his points.

  1. The practice of separating party and state is indicative of a healthy democracy.

When I was doing research for the Integrity Index, one of the key indicators of a healthy integrity score is exactly this: the separation between party and state. Maybe I am being too idealistic. Am I? In our context, there are already those from the party who are nominated in positions representing an interest in the state government and given a decision-making role.

The culture, however, is for the state to provide other recognition to the party. If it is finances, I think the answer is pretty clear: there ought to be separation. If it is nominated positions in state GLCs: this should be done only if the people are professionals, competent and possess the necessary skill sets required. Even so, preference shouldn’t be given purely on the basis of one’s party affiliation, should it? It should be based on whether the person is able to deliver. If the persons are excellent and able and happen to be affiliated to a party, then fine, by all means. The key determinant of being selected into a position is the ability to deliver and make wise, informed decisions.

2.  Parliamentarians and state assemblymen have separate and distinct functions.

In our country, we also have to accept the reality that people are not educated on the varying roles of MPs, State assemblypersons and local councillors. Whenever there is a problem of longkang tersumbat or botched-up roads, people will turn to whichever representative they can get access to. So, because MPs get called on to solve state-related problems, they therefore feel they have a stake in the governing of the State. This is an unfortunate reality. MPs should actually be focusing their attention on national-level affairs, the drafting and debating and passing of Bills into Acts.

Having said that, the principle of federalism also calls for there to be a separation of jurisdictions. So ultimately, it should legitimately fall on State Assemblymen to make the call for matters relating to the state. But there should always be the culture of openness, consultation, participative discussion, inclusiveness of all who have concerns and recommendations. MPs have access to people because of the multitude of people they meet. They too are the eyes and ears, and have valid perspectives that are valuable to the state administration. So, i) State Assemblymen have a legitimate State function; and ii) There must be room for MPs to express their valid views.

Having weighed all the concerns, let us remind ourselves the reason we are fighting this fight. Let’s go beyond the farcical sandiwara, the games, the lobs made between different sides whether internally or externally. What are the principles upon which we stand?

There are lots of problems and issues that we must continue to iron out. And this is true. So much to change. So much work to do. In the meantime, this is a painful but necessary process of educating ourselves on how to “do” democracy. Living so many years under one government, we have to be re-educated. Mistakes will be made. But we must do this together. Call it cliched, but a rope with many cords is much stronger than a rope of only one.

But on this count, on the count of relying on state for the interest of anything non-state, let us be alert. And err on the side of caution, because without caution, we run the risk of sliding down the slippery slope… which would then bring us to the pits of UMNO. And who wants that, really? 😉

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