Open crucial mega-deals to public eye

CYBERSPACE was on fire recently after the auditor-general’s 2010 annual report revealed a host of financial irregularities perpetrated by several government agencies and government-linked companies. Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) was among six GLCs reported to have paid up to two months’ bonus despite suffering RM354.91 million in losses in 2009. IWK suffered losses amounting to RM33.35 million that year (The Malaysian Insider, Oct 24, 2011).

It isn’t too difficult to understand why people are angered each year when these scandals are unveiled. As taxpayers, they feel indignant that their hard-earned money is being thrown about – and worse, to line the pockets of those they feel are undeserving.

But this is the epitome of everything that went wrong with the country’s privatisation scheme. Sewage treatment was privatised in 1994, taking over the functions of local government authorities to improve service efficiency and effectiveness. Again, the argument that under a privatised company, things would be better managed.

But in 2000, the government had to dish out RM200 million to nationalise IWK because it was debt-ridden, and today it is wholly-owned by the Minister of Finance Incorporated. Just last month, the Finance Ministry said the government had spent RM1.2 billion to cover its operational deficit. In fact, its total liability (up to June 2011) is made up mostly of “government support loans”, which means that it operates at a loss and could not possibly survive without such grants.

This seems to be the repetitive story for so many of our country’s public utility GLCs. Over the years, we have observed the same drama unfolding within water services and solid waste management as well: privatising and taking over services from the state authorities with the intention of better management, but failing and eventually requiring government assistance. So, it is most strange that recent reports indicate that the government, after nationalising IWK in 2000, is reverting to the solution of privatising it all over again.

1MDB, a strategic development company wholly owned by the government, plans to form a consortium to take over the national sewerage company for a nominal fee. The consortium would secure RM800 million from 1MDB as seed capital and help to clear IWK’s debts, which stand at RM1.5 billion (Business Times, Sept 9, 2011). Puncak Niaga Sdn Bhd, a dominant player in Selangor’s water services industry, is also reported to be involved in the consortium.

Although details of the takeover seem to be unconfirmed, it is certain that the sewerage industry is undergoing major restructuring. This is something all Malaysians should pay careful attention to, for several reasons. One, as ratepayers, we would be directly impacted by any changes made to the sewage management tariff and payment system, not to mention the service quality itself. Secondly, any debts that are paid off by government in acquiring IWK would consist of taxpayers’ funds.

Finally, this is a crucial mega-deal that should not be hidden away from the public eye. In light of the furore sparked by the Auditor-General’s Report, anyone in public service ought to realise by now that transparency and accountability are key in winning the hearts of the many.

It is of great concern that these important negotiations are taking place without any participation whatsoever from parties external to the deal. A monitoring body or watchdog group like Transparency International could be invited to ensure transactions take place in an open, transparent manner.

The fact that year after year, billions of public funds seem to disappear in an instant – poof! – is truly astounding. The clarion calls repeat themselves in vain, to improve the system of governance and monitoring.

And these deals that seem to be opaque and obscure really do not help public perception of the administration. One would imagine that we would have learnt from past mistakes on several counts, namely that privatising public utilities does not work in this country. If and when these deals are made, they must ultimately be watertight to protect consumers’ interests.

Before the deal is signed, it is hoped that the officials representing all Malaysians (read: government) scrutinise every line of the concession agreement, making sure the terms and conditions favour the people. It would be a ridiculous affair if, several years down the line, the same pattern of being financially unviable and the need for public funds arises yet again.

Tricia Yeoh blogs on triciayeoh.com

What’s in the budget for state governments?

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak tabled the 2012 Budget with great fanfare, announcing a slew of benefits for almost every possible layer of society. One common criticism is that his administration was heavy on welfare handouts, despite the fact its Pemandu chief had earlier warned of the country’s bankruptcy should our deficit be allowed to continue. Malaysia, as a result, is in its 15th consecutive year of a budget deficit, and although the government expects this budget deficit to be reduced to 4.7 percent in 2012 from 5.7 percent last year, this will be achieved only given a 5-6 percent economic growth (something economists including from the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research have expressed serious doubts over).

So the budget’s ballooning size did not come as a great surprise, especially for political pundits whose every second sentence over the last few months has been to speculate when the 13th General Elections will be called. If this is truly an election budget – and the stakes are extremely high at both state and national levels – how exactly will this budget affect state administrations? This is a particularly necessary question to explore given political competition for state governments between the Barisan and Pakatan coalitions.

There are several forms of financial contributions made by the Federal Government to all the 13 state governments in Malaysia. They are categorised into the following: Population size grant, State road-maintenance grant, Local and municipal council grant, Service payments, Grant under the concurrent list (of the Federal Constitution), Local and municipal council grant for street lights, Road slope maintenance grant, and a Grant based on development of the economy, infrastructure and prosperity levels.

All 13 states receive some form of allocation under each of these categories. In 2010, Kedah, Selangor, Sabah and Sarawak were also given additional “Annual special grants”, whilst Perlis and Kelantan were given grants due to operational account deficits. Finally, Sabah and Sarawak were given RM120 million each in relation to their petroleum resources.

In the year 2010, Penang received a total contribution of RM144.28 million from the Federal Government, Selangor received RM589.8 million, Kedah RM296.79 million and Kelantan RM287.8 million. In total, the Federal Government distributed RM4.75 billion to all 13 states in 2010 (Source: Actual Grants to State Governments in 2010, Estimates of Federal Government Expenditure, 2012 Budget, Treasury). This represented 2.48 percent of the 2010 budget totalling RM191.5 billion.

The 2012 Budget documents, however, unfortunately do not provide a breakdown of how much the Federal Government has allocated to each of the state governments in the coming year. This is because the budget document (as downloaded on the Treasury website) lists down expenditures categorised into respective ministries – no other format is provided. Of course, it would have been possible for the office in charge to extract the values of grants allocated to each state for the purposes of more detailed analysis.

This is an issue that Parliamentarians perhaps will be raising during the Budget Debates. Only then would researchers have access to estimated financial allocations to states like Penang and Selangor.

Until then, all we have are hints at how the state governments are expected to benefit out of the 2012 budget through programmes run by the Federal-level ministries. What are some of these ‘benefits’ under the budget? The list below is representative of all departments and ministries that explicitly state “State Government” as being a target “customer” of a particular programme.

  • The Auditor-General’s Department will spend RM59.8 million to audit all state governments’ accounts;
  • The Public Service Commission will service the state governments of Penang, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca and Perlis; and act as mediator between the Sabah state government and Federal Government under the Sabah Secretary Office;
  • The Attorney-General’s Office has representatives in all Legal Advisor Offices of the respective state governments and will spend RM34.65 million in total (RM3.68 million in Penang, RM3.38 million in Selangor, RM2.13 million in Kelantan and RM2.85 million in Kedah);
  • The Treasury will spend RM6 million to process loan applications from state governments (and other loan management duties in relation to development projects);
  • The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) will spend RM28.64 million to assist state governments in Peninsular Malaysia to settle their land management arrears, and other duties (Federal Government land acquisition operations, and implementing a ICT-based land management system).
  • The Ministry of Housing and Local Government deals largely with local government issues, but one programme specifically listed as “Local government” or Pihak Berkuasa Tempatan has as its objective to assist, coach and encourage socioeconomic development programmes and services, which will be allocated RM331.3 million. (The total Ministry’s budget is RM1.63 billion, where other entries on the list include solid waste management, town and country planning, landscaping, housing, policy, management, and the fire department). This entry is also included here, as local and municipal councils fall under the jurisdiction of state governments

This list may not be exhaustively representative of other intrinsic benefits that may accrue to state and/or local governments (for example, agriculture departments which are federal offices seconded to state governments, amongst others). However, the sum total of these items which have been explicitly tagged as benefiting state governments come up to a paltry RM460 million, a tiny fraction of the total budget’s RM232.8 billion.

This should not be too surprising, nevertheless, given the extremely centralised manner in which budget and policy-making has grown to become, a point I have belaboured in other past columns here. The budget for the Prime Minister’s Department, for example, has grown from RM11.9 billion in 2010 to RM15.9 billion in 2011. In 2012, this seems to take a slight cut down to RM13.5 billion, a positive sign, but the point is that the Prime Minister’s Department alone takes up 5.8 percent of the total national budget.

Compare this to the Selangor state government budget (one of the larger state budgets in Malaysia), which totals RM1.3 billion annually. And the significance is even more stark when compared to the smaller state government budgets in Penang (RM900.35 million), and Kelantan (RM53.24 million).

In answering the question of just how much the state governments benefit from the 2012 national budget, one is brought back to the issue of the federal-state structure of government administration. The fact that the figures show minimal direct contributions by the Federal Government to state and local governments is merely a reflection of the ways in which policies are set and implemented. Macroeconomic and social policies are still largely governed by the centralised Federal Government, and hence that is where the money lies.

Decentralisation of government policy would encourage greater local participation in the decision-making process. Under the Barisan coalition, this trend is nowhere near taking place in Malaysia. It is clear that as long as Putrajaya intends to micro-manage policy and execution (even of issues that could be much better managed at the local constituency levels, like community public transport and solid waste management), the purse strings will be held tightly at the top of the food chain.

As the general elections approach, some state governments may raise this as an issue of contention. After all, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate to an electorate the changes in a state if its government is not in fact in control of factors affecting their livelihood. Control of funds is tied directly to control of one’s resources: the election issues of, for example, management of water resources, and payment of oil royalty (in Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak) will therefore be recurring themes. Until then, state governments will have to be satisfied with a top-heavy budget, taking whatever remains that do trickle down to them.

Tricia Yeoh blogs on triciayeoh.com

Of schooling and the Budget

In my conversation with Malaysian parents, the topic almost always steers back to the issue of the country’s education system. They are most often in a dilemma about which schools they should place their children in, and which system to opt for.

Most parents who have been through the national education system in their youth, and benefited from its multiracial atmosphere, want their children to experience the same thing, yet fear the consequences of the combined effects of poor syllabus content, low quality teachers, and an atmosphere that just does not encourage critical thinking, growth and development of the child.

As a result, parents of different ethnicities have gravitated towards national-type Chinese schools, national-type Tamil schools, and other types like Government-assisted religious schools, mission schools, private schools, international schools and the new kid on the block: home-schooling.

The government is surely aware of the urgency of the matter, that if we do not correct the education system that produces unemployable graduates with a poor command of English, this will be the major source of economic slowdown – no matter the sophisticated infrastructure that Malaysia already possesses.

And what has the budget got to show for improving the quality of education in Malaysia?

The government will spend RM50.2 billion in education in 2012, out of which RM1.9 billion will be contributed to national schools, national-type Chinese schools, national-type Tamil schools, mission schools and Government-assisted religious schools, RM1 billion for construction, improvement and maintenance of schools.

One of the interesting announcements was the removal of primary and secondary school fees, which will cost the government RM150 million in total (school children currently pay RM24.50 and RM33.50 annually for primary and secondary school fees).

And then, a slew of incentives for private and international schools (if registered with the Ministry of Education and in compliance with regulation): Income tax exemption of 70% or investment tax allowance of 100% on qualifying capital expenditure for 5 years; double deduction for overseas promotional expenses to attract more foreign students; import duty and sales tax exemptions on all educational equipment.

It is all well and good for the government to increase incentives for private and international schools – they have in recent years been given greater liberalisation to operate on home ground. And there have been an increasing number of such schools, which raises the variety of options available to parents.

On the one hand, this may seem a positive thing, which allows private and international schools the option to price down (with their incentives and such, but only if the school chooses to do so), thereby making quality education available to a wider spectrum of people. But on the other hand, let’s not kid ourselves. But ultimately, only those in the highest income categories would be able to afford private education, whereas 60% of Malaysians have a household income of less than RM3500 on average.

This also creates silos of the educated, a fundamental problem with greater liberalisation of the education sector, where you have the rich and educated layer of society versus the less well-to-do having no choice but to receive education in national schools.

Sure, a budget on its own accord would not be able to solve all of the country’s education policy problems. But it does seem as if more efforts have been channelled to boosting the popularity of private education this time round.

Education is one of the National Key Results Areas (NKRA) under the helm of Pemandu at the Prime Minister’s Department. The four sub-areas are focused on pre-school education, literacy and numeracy, high-prestige schools (a target of 20) and giving achievement-based incentives to school leaders (headmasters in particular).

These four sub-areas, combined with the lack of description within the 2012 Budget on how to actually improve the quality of syllabus and of educators itself are of great concern and worry. The country does need a severe overhaul of the national education system, right from its roots of the teachers’ training colleges. (The flip-flop policies on English in Science and Maths are an added problem, but much has been said about this).

In short, parents want to feel secure in the knowledge that when they drop their children off at school every morning, the kids are maximising their potential, absorbing knowledge and being enthusiastic about learning, being exposed to the right material and being developed as a better human being. If the current national school system fails to deliver on this, we will get a situation of increasing fragmentisation, where the poles draw slowly apart in the contexts of not just race and religion, but of socioeconomic status.

Tricia Yeoh blogs on triciayeoh.com

Occupy Wall Street: Same rules of the game

”We are the 99%” is the slogan used by the thousands of protesters who stormed New York City in the “Occupy Wall Street” campaign, which culminated in a march and mass arrests on Brooklyn Bridge last weekend. Their message is simple: a protest against the well-oiled financial and economic system that is led by the 1% of the population, made up of the wealthiest and most well-connected Americans; the same system that despite having wreaked havoc on the country’s (and therefore, the world’s) economy, still continues running unabashedly on the same rules of the game as it did previously.

Watch the scenes on Al-Jazeera (or Youtube, depending on your generation) and you’d think the protesters were starving, with nothing to lose, like in the Arab Spring revolution. We often think Americans have it all, abundant manna from heaven, but a Washington Post columnist decries this fallacy, saying that three years after the crash, “youth employment is at its lowest level since the end of World War II” (Downie, J., Sept 26, 2011).

The Malaysian prime minister will be tabling the 2012 Budget in Parliament on this very day. At the time of writing, he has hinted that its contents will address the rising cost of living of low-income earners, like “extending financial aid, subsidies, incentives, skills training, healthcare services and housing”. (Funny, were we not told by Pemandu just last year that subsidies would have to be withdrawn, failing which Malaysia would be bankrupt by 2019?)

My humble prediction of the Budget’s contents is that it will be precisely that: a combination of motherhood statements like “increasing foreign investment”, “stimulating economic growth”, and welfare aid policies like a “1Housing Scheme”, “1Skills Programme” and “1Subsidy”. A number of quotes from the ETP, GTP, EPP and the 10th Malaysia Plan, to be sure.

All well and good, except that nowhere in the prime minister’s speech or the accompanying budget documents will there be an incisive analysis of the failures of an economic system that will break (and has been breaking) Malaysia.

And what exactly is this?

It is the culture that embraces, breeds, and practically worships the means of getting rich quick and finding deceptively roundabout ways of doing so. It is considered the intelligent thing to do, in climbing the ladder of crony capitalism. Forget the free market; this is pulling every string you’ve got to get ahead of the crowd.

In fact, this is a culture deeply embedded within the privatisation scheme introduced in the 1980s by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, many of which turned awry. Recall the multiple bailouts and losses the government (and hence, taxpayers) had to consequently bear throughout the 1990s: Bank Bumiputera Finance, Star LRT and Putra LRT are some examples. The principle of privatisation is to maximise competitiveness and productive efficiency, but the Malaysian version seems to have emerged with the opposite results.

The Najib administration has declared its wish to minimise government’s role in the economy, transferring this to the private sector. One wonders if real competition and private-led initiatives will be permitted to flourish. Especially since recent privatisation schemes with similar modus operandi have continued. The water services industry in Selangor is an example of failed privatised public utilities, one particular concession company of which being continually in the red, sustained only by federal government loans.

Another example is the ongoing federal government move to centralise the privatisation of solid waste management in Peninsular Malaysia. Under this scheme, three private companies will be given 22-year concessions to undertake solid waste management (Alam Flora in the central zone, E-Idaman in the north and Southern Waste Management in the south). The Selangor, Penang and Perak state governments have opted out, having their local councils take over instead.

There are several issues here that Malaysians should be concerned about. First, although the federal government will pay the concession companies the additional fees, this is only for the first five to seven years. The Housing and Local Government Minister stated that “after the KPI is fulfilled and people feel satisfied with the services, we will start charging”. These funds dispensed by government are effectively taxpayers’ money anyway. Second, the companies will receive RM500 million to RM600 million annual payment from the government on top of the assessment fees. Finally and most importantly, how were these companies selected?

In Malaysia, 60% of households still earned less than RM3,500 a month in 2009 (10th Malaysia Plan), whilst 6% earned more than RM10,000 a month (there is frustratingly no data available for higher income categories).

The privatisation model seems to be a repetition of schemes that in the past have failed to deliver public benefits effectively. Further, it enriches a rentier, crony class disproportionately to corporate performance. Unending “corporate welfare” provided by government could instead be channelled more effectively for public good.

Given the trend, one hopes Budget 2012 will tackle structural reform. Failing which, Malaysians may begin to ask themselves whether they belong to the 1% of society – or the 99%.

This article first appeared in TheSun.

Setting the tone with Selangorku

Selangor was one of the first governments in Malaysia to have officially celebrated Malaysia Day on 16th September in 2009, which was followed thereafter by the Federal Government in 2010 when it was declared a public holiday. This year, Selangor launched its version of an agenda in conjunction with Malaysia Day, called “Selangorku”, or “My Selangor”.

The project took about a year to complete, having been initiated when I was then Research Officer at the Selangor Menteri Besar’s office. Although I have since moved on, it was indeed a gratifying moment knowing the agenda had finally been launched.

To recap, the original objective of having an agenda at all was to set a direction for the Selangor state. After having been in the state government for more than two years (at the time the project was conceived in 2010), it was timely for Selangor to go through an evaluation process of its numerous policy reform measures, activities and programmes according to each portfolio and sector.

This was conducted via a series of townhall meetings held in each of the 12 local and municipal councils across the state, inviting stakeholders from a range of professions, in public, private, and non-governmental sectors to provide their perspectives and recommendations of what ought to be done in Selangor. The sessions were conducted like mini-group discussions around roundtables which allowed extensive discussion and facilitated by group moderators. The topics were centred upon governance (transparency and accountability), social issues (youth, crime and women issues were some that were raised) and infrastructure/public services (local council basic services such as roads, lights, drains and so on).

Apart from going to the ground, the Selangor team also met with specific groups to obtain their views on the direction of Selangor based on the government’s achievements or failures as well as share their opinions generally: institutes of higher learning, investors, the services and manufacturing sector, non-governmental organisations and selected academicians. Finally, the team held one-on-one personal interviews with each of the Exco members to ask what they felt were their most prominent policies and programmes that ought to be highlighted.

These were collated, taking into consideration the contents of other Selangor-related documents, such as the “Halatuju Selangor” document, various Selangor budgets, speeches, individual gazetted local council plans, the State Structural Plan, as well as some national documents that would invariably affect Selangor itself like the 10th Malaysia Plan and other Pemandu plans (Economic Transformation Programme, Government Transformation Programme).

Of course, the public is often not overly concerned about the details that go into any sort of policy document, hence some key points have been focused upon within brochures. These are namely the Selangor government’s commitment to holding local elections, the first of which is planned to be held in the Petaling Jaya City Council in 2012 as a pilot project. As civil society has long lobbied for the return of local council elections, this move would perhaps sit favourably amongst the urban dwellers. According to the Selangorku document, local governments must be fully responsible to the people and it is the rakyat who “should have the right to elect new leadership.” Democracy truly has to begin at the local level, and electing the best councillors who will care for neighbourhoods and residential areas is the best way to demonstrate this.

The second priority area is for the state government to develop affordable housing for families with low household income (between RM2500 and RM5000), again something a responsible state should take up. As inflation rises, many are finding it increasingly difficult to be new house-buyers and owners.

Third, the Selangorku document looks at facilitating collaboration with residents and the private sector to finance private security, with a pilot project hopefully within Subang Jaya. Although crime is one of the National Key Result Areas (NKRA) at the Federal Government level, it makes more sense for a more decentralised process of administering security to take place. State and local governments, for example, have greater access and frequent interaction with resident associations. Both governments have, however, relied on higher numbers of CCTVs to help monitor crime.

Fourth is an interesting proposal, where although the Federal Government and its National Minimum Wage Council have agreed upon a minimum wage, it has not yet been implemented. The Pakatan Rakyat which has a policy on minimum wage has taken a stand through the Selangor government to implement a minimum wage of RM1500 for all state subsidiaries effective January 1, 2012. If successfully carried out, other Pakatan states ought to emulate this step for the sake of consistency.

Finally, the agenda outlines infrastructure as another key area, to ensure good maintenance of roads, drains, and bridges which are under local council supervision. Ultimately, the basic service delivery of local councils is what will matter most to the everyday citizen.

It seems a positive step for the state government to have emerged with its own policy agenda, setting the direction it is currently and seeks to work towards. One problem the state has faced, however, is a consistent criticism of the lack of publicity and communication of its numerous work efforts. And indeed, there have been a whole lot of initiatives undertaken, but with minimal awareness amongst those living in Selangor. Output does not seem to have matched the amount of input invested into these numerous programmes, unfortunately.

The launch of the Selangorku Agenda has been one such way of tackling this problem of under-communicated policies. It is hoped that the existing team within the government (at all levels, including the Exco offices and other state assemblypersons) would be able to widely publicise this important document that, as I understand it, will set the tone for the upcoming elections through first, examples of what the state government has already done, and second, what it is currently and will execute in the future. With a roadmap in hand, the state can push forward confidently with a bold agenda – which of course must be equally matched with actual and smooth execution, which is the final and most crucial determinant of public opinion.

Information, internet and transparency

IT TOOK the government this long to figure out that people were genuinely concerned about the need for electoral reform – thanks mainly to Bersih 2.0. The prime minister first announced the formation of a parliamentary select committee to deal with electoral reform issues, and the Election Commission (EC) actually issued a statement in response to Bersih’s demands.

Just this week, the commission also announced that Malaysians can now download the voter registration form on its website, with accompanying instructions on what to do. Previously, assistant registrars have often faced shortages of voter registration forms, since only a specific form was accepted, and not any photocopied version. To think that the EC could have solved this problem a long time ago by placing it online makes one wonder why this could not have been done earlier.

Online is the way to go

I had the privilege of judging the semi-finals of the Malaysian Public Policy Competition 2011 held at UCSI University last weekend. It is the first of its kind in Malaysia, organised jointly by the International Council of Malaysian Scholars and Associates and UCSI University, where Malaysians of both local and foreign universities competed to propose the best solution to a public policy problem.

Presentations were outstanding, where teams targeted government agencies in need of an overhaul on governance, transparency and accountability, such as the police (on bribery), judiciary (on the perception of biased proceedings), Road Transport Department (on the issuing of driving licences), Public Service Department (on the awarding of scholarships), among others. A common theme from these young teams’ solutions was the need to go online.

Proposals ranged from having an open source bribery self-reporting system online, to making available live video streaming of high-profile court cases on the web (as put forth by the winning team from UiTM), to ensuring social media tools would be used to engage the public and disseminate information. Impressive and innovative indeed, ideas of which one should hope to see emerge from within the ranks of policymakers.

But is online information enough?

It is common for politicians to wax lyrical about the need for transparency and accountability, but we all know the devil is in the details. Under the Government Transformation Programme, one of its initiatives under corruption is to disclose details of government procurement contracts.

A check of the site shows tender advertisements and the final awarded tender of all ministries. It provides the final agreed price but does not give breakdowns for projects with multiple vendors (“Pakej” A, B and C are lumped together). These outcomes should be separated for greater transparency.

The same thing goes for details of the annual budget. Although the estimated government expenditure document is available online, the problem lies within the document itself. Where, for example, “contingent liabilities” or the risk (current and expected) undertaken by government is general and vague without detailed descriptions. Information not only has to be publicly available, it also has to be sufficiently detailed for researchers to make sense of it.

Data must also be presented fairly well, such that it is accessible and easily understandable. A note to add that the government websites today could do with a design overhaul. Ploughing through the barrage of information can be a chore (some still have tacky and distracting Flash).

These efforts should be lauded as administrative improvements to the system. The more information is publicly available, the better. Data, reports, audio and video recordings, live reporting of real-time problems (police bribery, uncollected rubbish, pot-holes, evidence of corruption) should go online.

Even without a Freedom of Information Act, the principle of maximum disclosure can be adhered to, breaking the culture of shadowy secrecy.

But this does not ultimately solve the problem of the reality of shady dealings. No amount of published information online will tell you about surreptitious meetings and negotiations that take place before any tender is even advertised.

Nor will it report the eventual escalation and inflation of project costs; just one example is the construction of the new palace, which ballooned from an original estimated cost of RM400 million to more than RM800 million (Bernama, June 15, 2010).

There is no official site that would provide you with details of the original and eventual project cost, based on present navigation of the available government websites.

Information is the most powerful tool available to the public to keep their leaders in check. And using the internet is ideal – all departments at all levels of government should actively pursue this.

Granted, not everything can be captured, but something is better than nothing. Perhaps there will be a way to tabulate and quantify cronyism, patronage and bribery in the future, which would also then be available online.

First published in theSun.

How far our economic reform?

IN THESE politically turbulent times, even the government is having difficulty dealing with itself. But to make serious and effective reform, it has to stick to its vision and not be waylaid.

In the movie Primary Colors that is loosely based on the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, his opponent in his speech says, “This is a terrific country but sometimes it goes a little bit crazy … if we don’t watch out and calm down, it may all spin out of control … The world is getting more and more complicated, but politicians explain things to you in simple terms so you can get your oversimplified explanations on the evening news.

“Sometimes they give up and start slinging mud at each other and it’s all to keep you excited and keep you watching, like a wrestling match. It’s staged and it’s fake and doesn’t mean anything … it seems it’s the only way to keep you all riled up …”

This, to me, seems a most apt depiction of the situation we are faced with in Malaysia. The issues that rain down upon us are oversimplified to fit into bite-sized stories. The worst part is that it’s all about public positioning, many a time staged to keep people continually fascinated by the political intrigue that has come to define us.

Can Pemandu cut it?

Let’s face it. Whether it is Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat which helms the federal government, it will be a gargantuan task to tackle the deep-seated problems Malaysia faces today. Either side would be forced to deal with an oversized civil service, institutions that have eroded through the years, and the tension between pushing for an equal society and liberalised economy vs demands to maintain the system of patronage.

Pemandu in its current form is the prime minister’s solution to all things rotten in the country, with a host of initiatives that form an alphabet soup of sorts. We have the GTP, ETP, NKRAs and NKEAs that cover a wide array of policy issues, including the most pressing ones such as education, corruption and human capital development.

How successful this will be remains to be seen. Some initial hiccups evident to an external observer are: first, the possible replication of duties and responsibilities, where roles overlap between that of Pemandu and that of the civil service (ministries and government agencies). Second, as pointed out by Greg Lopez in his article Malaysia – a simple institutional analysis (New Mandala, Australian National University website on Southeast Asian issues), these signature policies have ironically neglected the importance of institutional reforms.

NEM and Teraju

Finally, and probably the most significant of the lot, is the growing inability to negotiate between a more open economy and the demand to maintain a controlled and quota-ridden one.

The New Economic Model (NEM) uses terms such as “liberalised sectors”, “a level playing field”, “market led” and “competitive environment”, and makes bold statements like “More competition and pushing ahead with liberalisation will need to be complemented by a system that recognises and rewards merit … greater recognition of merit for gaining access to opportunities … (which) denotes the level and quality of individual as signalled by his or her performance” (NEM Part 1).

It is clear that these goals are being shelved to return to the same kinds of policies the NEM was critical of in the first place. A good example is, following demands by the likes of Perkasa, the subsequent formation of Teraju which has as its objective to “lead, coordinate and drive the bumiputra agenda” as part of the country’s plan towards “becoming a high-income, developed, resilient and competitive nation”.

Hence, most recently, Teraju insisted that pre-qualifying criteria were included for the RM50 billion Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project and sale conditions of prime land worth over RM2 billion by UDA Holdings, to ensure “growth with equity”. It seems that Teraju has also been in consultation with other stakeholders like Prasarana, which will operate the MRT.

It will be interesting to know which party is really driving major decisions such as these, which have crucial impact on us all. The MRT especially so, since it will one day serve millions of Klang Valley residents, and top-notch quality (and not whether the bumiputra composition of the chosen contractor) is essential to ensure safety of commuters.

In the movie, the opposing candidate says, “I want to start having a conversation about what sort of country we want this to be in the next century.” We can only hope for such a leader who can champion bi-partisanship. Because more important than partisan politics today is the need to address Malaysia’s economic issues. And so, can the government withstand its own policies from getting derailed?

Tricia Yeoh blogs on triciayeoh.com

Bersih and media coverage

Last night, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) organised a forum on Media Coverage and Bersih 2.0. They did a really good job presenting their research, which covered four mainstream newspapers, and exploring how they covered Bersih – positive, negative and neutral reporting; mention of Bersih’s demands; mention of legislation in relation to Bersih, and so on. The statistics were very revealing. Hopefully CIJ will put up the slides on their website.

There were three panelists responding to this presentation, Pauline Leong, media academic and lecturer at UTAR, Gobind Rudra, an experienced veteran journalist and ex-editor of The Star, and myself – admittedly not a media person but an acute observer nevertheless.

I spoke on the role of social media in Bersih, dividing the presentation into three parts, namely pre-Bersih (the final two weeks leading up to Bersih), during the Bersih rally itself, and finally the post-Bersih period (up to present time). The full forum session will be aired on www.durianfm.com tonight at 8pm. It can also be downloaded in full at the link here.

I shall do a proper write-up of my presentation in a full article later, but basically to sum up, these were the following trends I highlighted below. Big picture: Twitter recorded 33,940 users with 263,228 tweets over the period of between 9th June and 14th August, recorded by those who used the #bersih hashtag. Some trends:

1. Identity and Association: Social media like Facebook and Twitter were used to create common spaces for common faces. With PicBadges on both social networks, supporters were drawn together.

2. Dissemination of Information: Social media was used to disseminate crucial information such as on strategy, hotline numbers to call, telling people what to do in case of emergencies and so on.

3. Advocacy: Social media was used by supporters of Bersih to target local politicians, such as @najibrazak or using Twitter hashtags like #tanyanajib. Foreign media was also reached out to, like CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, as well as their individual reporters. Fund-raising was also another function of social media.

4. Themes on Twitter: It also became a ‘fun’ and highly interactive thing to do, in this virtual conversation. Themes like ‘why #bersih’, #tanyanajib and #bersihiseverywhere were used on Twitter. It became a way for Malaysians to express themselves through wit, sarcasm, in defense or demonising Bersih separately, and it also incited highly critical and emotional responses on both sides of the divide.

5. Bersih’s Efforts: Of course, Bersih’s efforts themselves cannot be forgotten. Their original target was to have 50,000 Facebook “likes”, (and a quick check of it recently shows 199,421 likes), and a target of 10,000 Twitter followers on their @bersih2 handle (again, a quick check shows 16,842 followers). Its website www.bersih.org was used as a central repository of news, Tweets and updates.

6. Dialogue and Interaction: Both Facebook and Twitter suddenly became public spaces to dialogue, compete, and interact at a very public level. Malaysians would have had at least ONE friend on either of the two social networks who was sharing videos and opinions on Bersih, which meant they were forced to be part of the conversation, and think about the issues at the very least, if not to take a particular stand on it.

7. International Factor: For the first time, Malaysians living around the world were able to participate actively in contributing to a cause of some sort, where previously they were only able to sit behind the computer screens reading news from Malaysiakini or Malaysian Insider. This time, they had the opportunity to do their own Bersih events in more than 30 cities around the world. The photos and videos shared later would create momentum both on their friends back home, which also spurred excitement in these other locations.

8. Clarifying Conflicting Reports: Post-Bersih, it was difficult for mainstream papers or government agencies to play down the numbers of Bersih attendees, as well as any high-handed police action. Where netizens and citizen journalists had uploaded Youtube videos of the Tung Shin Hospital incident being water cannoned and teargassed on the day itself, the Police said they would release their own video versions of the incident. This was a badly handled case. There were also photos being distributed of the police beating up several individuals. The presence of foreign and online media, and the instantaneous sharing of material online was able to clarify conflicting reports, in a way an indictment on government action.

9. Strengthening of Solidarity: Of course, the soppy tales of #bersihstories post-Bersih itself, where on Twitter there was a record of 2966 users and 11,192 stories. The “Auntie Bersih” picture and story is one many would know by now, and many statements of how “It was the first time I felt Malaysian”.

Other personal observations:

1. Social media made the polarities between online citizens even more striking. So for pro-Bersih folk, it was used to defend Bersih at all costs. For Anti-Bersih folk, it was used to demonise Bersih. And these polar opinions in a sense pushed the fence-sitters into a corner, where the militant supporters and dissidents of Bersih on both sides appeared to take the approach of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. A common view online amongst these fence-sitters was that “Bersih has been hijacked by the politicians”, or “Bersih has lost its original focus and objective”, and “Bersih could have been done in a stadium after all”. Facebook and Twitter made these debates visible for the first time, where in the past perhaps opinions would have been shared to only *your* particular group of friends. Online, the plateau and universe of opinions became accessible to all alike.

2. Psychographic profile of Bersih participants. I also wondered whether the social media effect meant that a new grouping of Malaysians were suddenly attuned to the excitement of a public rally. The new urban, middle-class and upper-class folk who came with their iPads, taking photos, dressed in heels and nice clothes, obviously not having been to a rally before. Perhaps less political party members compared to the numerous other street rallies in the past, but fairly representative of the younger and more net-savvy populace.

Why everything is political

There is a tendency for people to complain in loud groans how everything is oh-so-political these days. The fact is that, yes, everything is in fact political. Especially so in a country like Malaysia where decision-making is highly centralised and ultimately concentrated on the few that make up the Cabinet within the Federal Government.

Sure, in an ideal world, there ought to be more than one way to bring about change. We envision a situation in which the media, civil society and labour unions have equal power in lobbying for policy reform, and although efforts are being made to strengthen these institutions, the sad reality is we are far from achieving this in Malaysia.

So, although one might be disgusted by underhanded tactics employed by political parties and individuals, one must equally understand that nothing can change unless it goes through the political route given the current climate. Everything is ultimately political and we shall see why.

At a Student Leaders’ Conference I spoke at recently at Universiti Malaya, the question was posed to all panelists as to how we would define “politics”. One fellow speaker answered that politics was the process of standing up for the rights one deserves; another that politics is the process through which power is obtained, which in turn is used for administering public good.

I gave examples of how gathering a group of people together under any setting would then undergo a political process of nominating and electing a leader. There would also be the dynamics involved; identifying people who are influencers, taking positions and sides on issues of concern, debating these matters, and so on. This can be observed even within the setting of a family, classroom, students’ union, labour union, and of course at the larger scale of the nation.

Malaysians are eager to talk about public issues these days. Countless forums, conferences, talks are being organised almost weekly, clogging up halls over weekends. This is a positive sign that we are wanting to engage instead of sweeping things under the carpet, but at the end of every forum the question always remains the same: What can be done? My answer would be, again, that because of the nature of our system, one has to go through the political route. Some examples are given below.

Scandals: There are scores of these one can recall in an instance, flooding our online newsfeeds as if a Pandora’s Box has just been opened. Let’s just take the Port Klang Free Zone incident. After theSun exposed correspondences and the fact that letters of guarantee were issued to PKFZ to raise bonds, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) then summoned officials to answer questions on the project. A series of events followed, including a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, and finally a series of charges and arrests took place. Although there are individuals who have certainly gone unpunished, without political pressure from the opposition, the PAC would not have sprung into action.

Addressing poverty: In addressing poverty issues, the Federal government a long time ago introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) which contained affirmative action policies that benefited the Bumiputera community, but have been severely abused and misused. Pakatan Rakyat in its economic proposals is proposing an alternative economic policy that is needs-based, thereby allowing all those from various races in need to benefit from it. It was only following the criticisms to the abuse of the NEP (by academics, think tanks, Opposition, civil society) that the government in fact later proposed liberalisation measures in its New Economic Model (NEM), largely similar to the Opposition’s proposals. For national wealth to trickle down effectively to appropriate poor communities, again it is those making decisions at political institutions who need to be lobbied.

Quality of education: Probably one of the greatest concerns of parents these days is the quality of education, thereby determining the schools that their children attend. Low salaries already make the teaching profession an undesirable career, hence the poor quality of teachers – added to this is the poor selection of textbook material, bias towards Islamic education within national syllabus and the lack of representation of non-Malays contributing to the country’s history. These are all obviously politically motivated and again, one must resort to political pressure to influence change within the Education Ministry and Teachers’ Training Colleges.

These are just samples of the numerous problems our country is faced with today. Other pressing issues include crime and security, corruption, wages, inflation, and economic growth.

The point I am making is that precisely because these are everyday issues that will invariably affect the lives of you and those around you, we should simply stop demonising politics as it were. As those sitting in the cushy middle space between the presently polarised political forces, there is a tendency for us to follow political news keenly – sometimes even leave comments on articles we are interested in – but otherwise laugh mockingly at the actual players in the game because all that is quite beneath us.

But the truth of the matter is that whichever pet peeve we have of the circumstances surrounding us, we will continue to heavily depend on the political forces that be to institute the change we desperately need. Whether this takes place through the official routes of government committees, ministries, political parties, or non-governmental associations (which in turn have close links with political parties, and which is natural as they require lobbying, and this happens all over the world).

Until the day we achieve a robust and independent media, civil society, labour union and student body, (all of which we should continue to promote), let us accept the fact that everything is political. And then we can do something about it, either by actually participating in the process or then influencing for change with the right parameters in mind.