Selangor State Assembly.
Selangor and Penang are strongly expected to remain in the hands of opposition coalition. A relevant question is, what should a secondterm Pakatan state government try to achieve in those states?
By Tricia Yeoh (first published in the Penang Monthly, April 2013 issue)
Over the last five years, Selangor and Penang have experienced significant changes under new state governments. But despite the innovative policies implemented, there have also been areas where more could have been done. What are the top five policy themes that will be good to focus on in the next five years?
1. Economic cooperation
Being the two most urbanised and developed states that together attract at least onethird of FDI, Penang and Selangor could have engaged in more strategic economic cooperation. Although many of the policies and programmes that were adopted are in fact similar, this was not necessarily the result of any concerted effort in creating a common platform. In the future, both states can seek to adopt a common “Pakatan Rakyat state policy” stand, under which specific programmes can be outlined, representative of the coalition’s economic philosophy. Some parts may differ according to the states’ individual needs, but having a largely similar policy package will allow for consistency.
For Pakatan-led states that are less urban, it is understood that their needs will be significantly different. At a Menteri Besar Summit in 2010, there was discussion that the states could come together to form a “Pakatan Rakyat States Fund”, which could be marketed abroad. The majority of the seed funds would come from the more prosperous states of Selangor and Penang. Investment into this fund would also allow for development in states that may not have sufficient financial resources of their own.
As things are, and given a highly centralised bureaucracy, the federal government takes the lion’s share of funds, leaving a pittance for state coffers, especially in states run by the opposing coalition. Another option is for state-linked companies to raise funds on their own, although legally this would be tricky as most funds would need prior approval from the Securities Commission. Whatever the outcome, Pakatan states ought to look at how they can cooperate better in their economic planning, riding on the strengths of the more developed states.
2. Democratic participation
Pakatan prides itself on being the champion of democratic participation, and this has been made evident through the two state governments’ passing of their Freedom of Information enactments and the efforts made towards restoring local government elections. While these are certainly steps in the right direction, they should not stop there. The requirement for a Freedom of Information Commission to exist is still not actuated, and much will need to be done to educate civil servants and the public on the benefits and importance of access to information. At present, there does not seem to be any real understanding of how this translates into better quality of life.
Local government elections have also been a difficult issue to tackle, given a variety of opinions on its need, even within the Pakatan coalition. In Selangor, the chairpersons of several new villages were elected based on the same premise that local government elections are grounded upon. Mosque committee heads were also democratically elected, a change from the past. However, efforts were slow in getting a pilot local election to take place within Petaling Jaya, which was the original idea. Likewise, although Penang has taken things a step further by petitioning the Federal Court to restore local government elections, this remains at the legal and bureaucratic levels.
What is of primary concern is democratic participation within local council affairs, despite the absence of councillor elections. For instance, a greater budgetary allocation to Local Agenda 21 (LA21), which encourages public participation in major council decisionmaking matters, and the setting up of an organised, structured feedback system from local civil society and NGOs will be good. There exists the Penang Forum in Penang, but a similar entity has not been structured in Selangor, the latter of which has adopted a more ad-hoc response to NGOs.
That said, the Freedom of Information model of Selangor is one that can be followed in both states. The process of getting this passed incorporated the role of civil society, with the representation of the Coalition for Good Governance on board the joint committee together with the Selangor government (in this case, YB Elizabeth Wong, the Exco member who chaired it). Later, a public consultation took place following the first and second reading of the enactment, until the final draft was agreed upon. This structure allowed for direct contributions from the public. More such examples should be considered for the host of issues to be worked on in the future, such as local council budgeting, forest protection and Orang Asli rights.
3. Institutionalising programmes
Penang has successfully institutionalised different organisations over the past five years, such as the Penang Institute, which publishes Penang Monthly, the Penang Women’s Development Corporation and so on. These are excellent case studies that the other Pakatan states could have incorporated. Although Selangor instituted its Gen-S (Generasi-Selangor) as a youth body that would organise events, awards, forums and so on, this has not been fully marketed and more can be done in empowering such an organisation to care for a crucial demographic constituency. Selangor also has the advantage of a state-owned university, namely University Selangor (UniSel), which can also be used to encourage studies in public policy, political philosophy and youth leadership.
It is through the steady, systematic construction of empowering structures on a range of issues such as women, youth and the need for intellectual study of state policy, that the states will be able to organise themselves better. This is an area that can be developed in the next five years, especially in the state of Selangor, which has tremendous resources.
Both Selangor and Penang are in excellent positions to continue displaying just what a Pakatan government will look like when in federal government and, no doubt, policies have been executed in the last five years with this in mind. However, more can and should be done in each of the three areas outlined above: the two states should engage in greater economic cooperation, do more to increase democratic participation in a more realistic and practical manner with direct contributions from the public, and finally, institutionalise some of the programmes in a way that empowers people to achieve their objectives.
Should there be a change in federal government, both Selangor and Penang will also have to adjust to political realities as well as expectations of voters. Both states will no longer be able to cite the excuse that the federal government is too centralised and restricts funds from the states. Although it would be an exciting time for Malaysians, Pakatan state governments will have to continue focusing on the states that they continue to be given the mandate to run.