Oil and more open budget

January 13th, 2015 by admin Categories: Governance, Opinion, Political Economy and Governance No Responses
Oil and more open budget

By Tricia Yeoh. First published in the The Edge Malaysia on 12 January 2015.

The budget department of the government’s treasury must surely be in panic mode at present, given that global oil prices have fallen by about half since the 2015 budget was announced, and especially since oil and gas takings contribute 30% of total national revenues.

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Pengajaran daripada kejadian banjir

January 3rd, 2015 by admin Categories: Governance, Opinion, Other No Responses
Pengajaran daripada kejadian banjir

oleh Amin Ahmad. Diterbitkan di Malaysian Insider 3 Januari 2015

Kita menyambut tahun baru 2015 dengan rasa pilu mengenangkan situasi banjir di beberapa negeri, khususnya di Kelantan yang nampak begitu parah, selain kehilangan kapal terbang AirAsia QZ8501. Takziah diucapkan kepada semua mangsa dan keluarga masing-masing.

Seperti biasa apabila sesuatu masalah berlaku, kita akan mencari punca dan pihak bertanggungjawab. Hal ini kemudiannya berkembang menjadi tuduh-menuduh, jawab-menjawab yang akhirnya semakin menjarakkan perbincangan daripada isu sebenar.

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High time for a Civil Service Shakedown

December 15th, 2014 by admin Categories: Governance, Opinion No Responses
High time for a Civil Service Shakedown

By Shaza Onn. First published in The Edge 15 December 2014

Year in and year out the Auditor General’s Report features the same reason for poor public service delivery – the underwhelming capabilities of government officers. So as prison wardens would say, “it’s time for a shakedown buckos”.

A few weeks ago the third series of the AG’s report was released and though there was less hype and not to mention drama over its findings, the message was clear. The people managing large multi-million ringgit public projects are severely unprofessional. And what does this unprofessionalism mean? It means shoddy compliance of procurement procedures, mismanagement of finances, weak project management and inadequate monitoring of projects. These trends also surface in not only the AG’s Report but also in the findings of the Public Accounts Committee as well as the Public Complaints Bureau Annual Report. Cringingly, the AG’s Report attributes these problems to a simple lack of experience and skills with no real call for reprimand save for Heads of Departments to monitor the officers better. Reality check, this is really inexcusable.
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Are we really free to talk?

December 9th, 2014 by admin Categories: Governance, Opinion No Responses
Are we really free to talk?

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 9 December 2014

The tradition of political foundations is something that we are not very familiar with in Malaysia. But in quite a few countries around the world, usually those that are more developed and more democratic, political foundations are a norm.

Generally speaking, a political foundation is a not for profit organisation that is set up for a political purpose. This could be promoting a certain set of values, building the capacity of political parties through training programmes, upskilling civil society organisations and community activists, and many more. The ‘political’ nature of their work makes them different from most other non-profits that are normally avoid being political.

The political foundations operate differently from one country to another. In America, the names of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute may create the impression that they work for the Republican and Democratic Parties respectively. But in reality their relationship with the political parties is not as direct as many would imagine.

In Germany politician foundations are directly linked to a particular political party and are funded by taxpayers based on the amount of votes received by their parties. To simplify, the German political foundations exist to promote the values and principles of the parties that they are linked to.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) has been one of IDEAS’ main funders since before we were officially launched in 2010. They are closely linked to Germany’s Free Democratic Party, and they label themselves as the foundation for liberal politics.

Recently, in mid October, the FNF organised an important regional event called the “Freedom Week”. Together with other FNF partners in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea, IDEAS too took part in this one week campaign for freedom in the region.

Among others, a short film competition was held in Thailand, an expert meeting on religious freedom was held in Indonesia, a discussion on the experiences of Korea and Germany in conflict and reconciliation was held in South Korea, a group cycling to rural high schools were held in Cambodia to campaign for freedom to education, and thousands of people took part in an anti-corruption freedom run in Manila.

For our part, my colleague Tricia Yeoh and I held an online “Freedom Conversation” via twitter. That was a completely new experience for me and I greatly enjoyed it.

We invited questions from those who follow our @IDEASMalaysia twitter account. Over one hour, people can ask anything that they want, with no restriction. We certainly got what we bargained for!

The questions thrown at us covered many topics. They ranged from the extremism of some rightwing NGOs, to the sudden about turn by the so called “progressive” UMNO leaders on Sedition Act, the limits of freedom and liberty, authoritarianism in PAS, redelineation of electoral boundary, and even the role of the monarchy as well as what do I, as a liberal, think of the royalty.

The thing that struck me about all these questions was how restrained people were. The only ones who tried to be provocative were close friends who were playfully teasing me with their questions. But no one asked difficult hard hitting questions.

When I say that “people” were restrained during the session, I actually include myself too. Looking back at the list of questions and my answers, it was obvious that even I was very cautious with my answers, making sure they are “safe”.

For example, one of the questions I had to answer was on whether religion has played a negative role vis a vis freedom in Malaysia. My answer was “If I answer you honestly, tomorrow I will be arrested. So my politically correct answer is we have seen some good uses, and some awful abuses, of religion in Malaysia.”

When I was typing the answer, I probably had just a few seconds to think about it because the online conversation was happening quite fast. Now, looking back, that impromptu answer was actually quite telling.

With the benefit of hindsight, and if I reflect honestly on the Freedom Conversation session, I must admit that there was an element of self-censorship at play throughout that one hour. As much as I want to speak up, subconsciously I was stopping myself from being totally frank.

Personally, I find that rather troubling. Especially so because at the same time I also feel that we can’t afford to do otherwise in this current environment. Isn’t that a shame?

I wonder how many people out there share my predicament. You know that there is a dire need to speak up. You know that there are so many clowns out there spewing hatred. And you know that for the sake of our country, these extremists must be countered.

But despite all that, something inside says that you must restrain yourself. While the extremists are safely protected, you feel vulnerable despite being on the right, liberal and moderate, side.

Our Rukun Negara says that we as a country are committed to “guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions”. As we come close to the end of 2014, I can’t help but wonder if the liberal spirit of the Rukun Negara actually means anything anymore?

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)

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Taxing morally

October 28th, 2014 by admin Categories: Economy & Trade, Governance, Opinion One Response
Taxing morally

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published as “Tax system should not discriminate ” in The Star 28 October 2014

In my column two weeks ago, I wrote about how taxes are a form of coercion by the government against the people. Since then, I received many comments saying that it is not fair to blame Barisan Nasional for everything.

I want to start this column by clarifying again that when I use the word ‘government’ I do not refer to any political party. A government is the entity that is tasked with governing. It can be at federal, state or local levels. And it can be made up of people from any party. I am not talking about Barisan Nasional government or Pakatan Rakyat government but simply the entity of the ‘government’ generally.

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Paying it backwards

October 17th, 2014 by admin Categories: Economy & Trade, Governance, Opinion No Responses
Paying it backwards

by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun 17 October 2014

AMIDST the media frenzy that surrounds the budget each year, not many pay attention to the supplementary budgets. Did you know that the government spends billions of ringgit that is outside the main budget, which is only requested for in supplementary budgets many months later?

Consider this. The budget for 2011 was first tabled at RM211.3 billion, but the two supplementary budgets tabled later (for that particular year) came up to a whopping RM23.48 billion, forming more than 10% of the original total.

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You will pay for everything

October 14th, 2014 by admin Categories: Economy & Trade, Governance, Opinion 2 Responses
You will pay for everything

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published as “How our money is spent” in The Star 14 October 2014

The Prime Minister delivered his Budget Speech last Friday. The speech started very well. I like Dato Sri Najib Razak’s admission that “The biggest challenge I face in administering Malaysia … is how to balance between policies that are populist in nature as compared to those policies based on economic and financial imperatives.”

This is the reality of politics. Politicians must be and must remain popular. Someone who does not worry about popularity shouldn’t even think about entering politics. Acknowledging that shows that Najib is a realistic politician, unlike some others who are extremely populist but always deny it.

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Open up the government

September 30th, 2014 by admin Categories: Governance, Opinion No Responses
Open up the government

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 30 September 2014

The Administration and Diplomatic Officers (Pegawai Tadbir dan Diplomatik, PTD) Alumni Association held their international conference on 9th and 10th September in Kuala Lumpur.

PTD officers are the pillar of Malaysian civil service. Not everyone in the civil service belongs to the PTD category and usually many top government posts, in Malaysia and abroad, are held by PTD officers.

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Inspirations from Raja Aziz Addruse

September 26th, 2014 by admin Categories: Governance, Opinion No Responses
Inspirations from Raja Aziz Addruse

by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 26 September 2014

Raja Aziz Addruse was best known for being elected thrice to the Presidency of the Bar Council, founding the country’s first human rights NGO, and dealing with profound constitutional issues. To me, he was also a family friend: I knew him only as Uncle Aziz and only later realised his role in fighting for our democracy.

As Malaysia’s foremost constitutional lawyer, Raja Aziz rejected the notion of parliamentary supremacy, arguing that “the fundamental principle which applies under a written constitution is that it is the Constitution itself, and not Parliament, which is supreme”, lamenting the 1988 constitutional amendments that subverted this. Today, the basic structure of our Constitution is under threat from several angles, and there are those who deliberately reinterpret basic premises of our Constitution, citing key articles out of context as justification.

Raja Aziz also wrote on issues such as the independence of backbenchers, freedom of speech, the 1993 constitutional amendments that removed the Rulers’ legal immunity, the mandatory nature of the death penalty, the use of police firearms, apostasy, single-spouse conversion of children, detention without trial and of course the Sedition Act.

His ominous words reflect a general state of cynicism towards politics and government in Malaysia today. Amongst the chattering classes there is no shortage of cynicism to describe the health of our democracy. Institutions are seen to have been compromised by personal or party interests, to the extent that it becomes difficult even for ethical individuals to contribute: several respected NGO and corporate figures have lost credibility simply by becoming cabinet ministers. The prevalent view is that individuals will be corrupted by the system, instead of the system being cleansed by individuals.

This situation has been aided by an intentionally deficient teaching of history which omits the presence of concepts such as rule of law, separation of powers and limits to authority in ancient Malay polities. Even post-Merdeka history is distorted, as the political successors of Dato’ Onn Ja’afar, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman are speciously presented as their ideological successors too. Their attitudes towards authoritarian legislation in the context of a communist insurgency are forgotten, so too their ability to socialise with political opponents. But today, simply supporting a different party leads to accusations of treason.

In such an atmosphere, what hope is there for rule of law and morality? How do we break the cycle of institutional destruction? We cannot rely on political forces alone, as we have seen by recent political shenanigans on both sides.

Rather, we need to cajole political forces into a consensus, to re-forge a shared understanding of the Constitution, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. There were aspects of this during Tun Abdullah Badawi’s administration: democratic space opened up that enabled the strengthening of civil society; his acceptance of the 2008 general election results while others bayed for blood proved that peaceful transitions were possible; the Royal Commission of Inquiry into police reform produced a valuable proposal even though it wasn’t fully implemented; and his attempt to reform the judiciary, accompanied by a statement of regret about the 1988 constitutional crisis, was a step in the right direction in recalibrating the relationship between judiciary, executive, and public.

So there are things that morally courageous can do to realise Tunku Abdul Rahman’s vision of “a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice” – but where moral courage is absent, it is up to civil society to show that the pillars of the Rukunegara can be upheld without the insincere hectoring of the state.

Today, Raja Aziz’s point about the elasticity of the definition of ‘seditious tendency’ in the Sedition Act is prescient. But there is a way out, if the National Harmony Bill can assuage those who are outraged by the recent spate of arrests as well as those who fear that racial and religious slurs will be used to incite violence.

Raja Aziz was a national hero, as attested by the multitude of accounts that remember him, such as: “The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary were to him not mere clichés or fancy words to be uttered at the appropriate time and to be forgotten when it becomes inconvenient. Raja Aziz believed in these values.”

Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite the 1988 constitutional amendments, there remains a contestation between the supremacy of Parliament and that of the Constitution. The battle that Raja Aziz fought throughout his career can still be won, but only if the Malaysian judiciary successfully asserts its independence and ultimately wins the respect of the people.

This is a summary of a speech given by the author at the 3rd Raja Aziz Addruse Memorial Lecture. Full text is available at ideas.org.my. Click here to download the full text

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Govt and civil society: The gap widens

September 25th, 2014 by admin Categories: Governance, Opinion No Responses
Govt and civil society: The gap widens

by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun 25 September 2014

AN Asian civil society summit I attended in Jakarta recently discussed the often times tenuous relationship between government and civil society in countries within the region.

Civil society in many of our neighbouring countries face great challenges. Lack of funding, accusations of being anti-nationalist, or worse, anti-government, imprisonment and sexual harassment were some examples cited by colleagues from India, Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere.

Throughout the two days of discussing the governance of civil society, what became clear though was that all participants agreed there ought to be a more enabling environment to create a safer space for civil society to operate in. With greater freedom to push for more open, transparent and accountable government, this would ultimately allow for improved public service delivery.

The Indonesian example may be useful to cite in this instance, where there is an official government policy to encourage civil society to engage with them through partnerships, and have even set up a “democracy trust fund” to strengthen civil society organisations. On this count, the government itself has demonstrated its willingness to support civil society in building its capacity.

One of the more brilliant examples was a mobile application developed by the government itself, called “Lapor” (Report), which allows citizens to submit reports of any public nature, accompanied with photos or documents, using their hand phones. The receiving government office would then forward the report on to the relevant agency or ministry in charge of the complaint, to take immediate action.

While this is certainly encouraging, there is also a unique balance that civil society must strive to maintain in its relationship with government: being able to contribute to participatory decision-making requires a level of partnership with government (whether local, state or federal), but at the same time there ought to be a reasonable distance away from government such that the organisations are still deemed as independent and not co-opted into the agenda of government itself.

In fact, one question raised during the event was whether or not the government should make it compulsory for civil society organisations to register officially.

In some cases, governments can wield their powers in requiring NGOs to register, and by so doing, set up high barriers to entry in the “civil society marketplace”, regulating them strictly and in the worst case, controlling them. In which case, it is far better not to require societies and NGOs to register. Should people not be free to set up organisations without being officially registered and regulated?

Back home, the Registrar of Societies (ROS) has called up several steering committee members of Negara-Ku, a national unity movement whose charter has been endorsed by more than 80 NGOs, for questioning.

Among the questions asked is why there has been no application for the movement to be registered. Apparently, in Malaysia, your organisation can be called up by the ROS for questioning whether or not you are registered.

And this is just one example in a slew of a recent clampdown by the administration, which seems to be targeted to repress freedom of expression. In recent weeks, more than 20 individuals have been hauled up under the Sedition Act, the latest of whom has been sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. NGOs have responded by launching an “Abolish the Sedition Act” movement.

This is all to be expected from civil society in Malaysia. There will be movements, and there will be marches, peaceful protests, or demonstrations, call it what you wish. This is all part and parcel of activism, in Malaysia or anywhere else in the world.

The very nature of non-governmental organisations is that they represent the interests of the non-governmental individuals and stakeholders, and many (if not all) times this may be in direct conflict with the opinions of the powers that be.

The difference lies in how government chooses to react.

As I sat back to listen to the Indonesian President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight (UKP4, which is similar in set-up to Pemandu in Malaysia) wax lyrical about civic engagement, open online platforms, and the need for citizen participation through technology and innovation, I could not help but wonder whether this sort of language would one day arrive at the doorsteps of our bureaucracy.

The reverse seems to be happening on our shores. There is a widening gap between the government and civil society, or at least one segment of civil society. Is it possible for this gap to narrow?

What set the groundwork for Indonesia’s eventual adoption of the Open Government Partnership – a government-led initiative and commitment to openness – was the enacting of the Freedom of Information Act. This is one step that our government could consider if it wants to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability.

But before that, government officials, ministers, and civil servants must be encouraged to eventually step out of their comfort zones, stop viewing civil society as an evil force, and learn to engage them for their own benefit. In the long run, this is the only scenario that would result in a better quality of life for us all.

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Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of IDEAS

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