[lg policy] Sarawak: Ceding power to local communities

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed May 22 11:16:05 EDT 2019

Ceding power to local communities

   - LETTERS <https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters>

   Wednesday, 22 May 2019

IMAGINE that you live in a remote part of Sarawak. You live a simple life
in an area which lacks many of the basic amenities of life. The road
leading to your longhouse is a dirt track ridden with potholes and turns to
mud whenever it rains. You rely on the river that passes by your longhouse
for water, and a noisy diesel generator in the evening for electricity.

You are frustrated by the lack of basic utilities that Malaysians elsewhere
take for granted.

Given finite resources, what should the government spend money on first? A
tarred road? Piped water? A hydroelectric dam project? How should we spend
our money, and who should be the ones to decide?

Basic economics dictates that we should first spend our money on the
project that would bring the greatest utility per ringgit to those who
might benefit from it.

Of course, some decisions by their nature must be taken at a higher level:
a district council may be able to plan and build a local road, but only
state or federal authorities can properly plan and build a trunk road or an
interstate highway.

This, in a nutshell, is the principle of “subsidiarity” – that decisions
should be taken at the lowest possible level consistent with effective

Despite being a federation of 13 states, each with its own state
government, Malaysia is an incredibly centralised country. The budget of
all 13 states amounts, by some estimates, to only 7% of the federal budget.

Over 62 years of Barisan Nasio­nal rule, many matters previously handled by
local authorities, such as buses, fire services, sewerage and even garbage
collection and public cleansing, have in most states moved from local to
federal control.

In addition, federal infrastructure spending has been heavily concentrated
in and around the federal capital in the Klang Valley, to the detriment of
more remote regions such as in Kelantan or Sabah and Sarawak.

This concentration of financial resources often leads to wasteful and
inefficient allocation of resources.

For instance, during the previous administration, a huge sum of federal
money was allocated to local authorities to erect metal railings to protect
pedestrians on walkways from snatch thieves. This ignored the fact that in
many parts of the country, there are insufficient pedestrian walkways, or
even no walkways to begin with.

In Penang, some of this money ended up being used, perversely, to erect
metal railings around open drains instead of covering the drains with
disabled-friendly walkways.

Overcentralised decision-making also means that the government tends to
adopt one-size-fits-all policies that ultimately fit and please nobody.

The Teaching Of Science and Maths in English and Upholding Bahasa Malaysia
and Strengthening English Language policies are such examples. The previous
administration initially imposed a nationwide policy of requiring
Mathematics and Science to be taught in English, without regard to the
local availability of English-speaking teachers or the wishes of local

The policies went too far for many rural parents who wanted their children
to be taught in the vernacular language but not far enough for others, who
wanted the option to have more or all of the syllabus taught in English.

Education policy is just one of the areas that Parliament could easily
devolve to state governments, and even to individual schools or districts
while enforcing minimum standards at the federal level.

Decisions pertaining to the colour of school shoes can surely be made by
headmasters or parent-teacher associations (PTAs) rather than the federal
Education Minister.

It is no secret that many ministers are struggling to get to grips with
their ministries. Devolution of decision-making would allow federal
ministers to focus their limited time and energy on issues that really
matter at the national level. This would also encourage innovation in
policy-making, with state and local authorities competing and learning from
one another’s policy ideas and experiments rather than the whole country
being forced to follow the same “one-size-fits-none” blueprint.

Decentralisation would also encourage local citizens to participate in
local decision-making, for instance, by attending town hall and PTA
meetings, or by standing for election to residents associations and local
councils, thereby enhancing participation in our democracy.

As the great 19th-century French historian and political scientist
Tocqueville wrote, “Local assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of
free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to
science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use
and how to enjoy it.”

Around the world, local democracy encourages independents and serving or
retired professionals not tied to national political parties, such as
lawyers, architects and engineers, to get involved in local government.

This would be a welcome step up from the present crop of “third-class”
political appointees – party members who are not competent enough or senior
enough to stand for parliamentary or state seats – who are currently tasked
with our local governance.

Decentralising and giving local communities control over the matters that
affect their daily lives is also one way to de-escalate the controversies
of language, race and religion that plague our politics.

States like Kelantan and cities like Petaling Jaya, for example, are
culturally and demographically more homogeneous than the nation as a whole,
and are therefore far more able to make decisions on based on local

Policies that give rise to controversy in Peninsular Malaysia may be
totally noncontroversial in Sabah or Sarawak.

Giving power to local communities allows citizens to have the policies they
want without arousing national controversies of racial and religious

Moves towards decentralisation have previously been supported by Pakatan
Harapan leaders, such as the current Finance Minister, who, as Chief
Minister of Penang, bridled at the tight reins of the federal government in
Putrajaya and passed a local government elections enactment that was later
struck down by the Federal Court.

Yet, there is little sign that the Pakatan government is committed to local
democracy or the kind of regulatory and fiscal decentralisation that has
allowed even unitary states such as China and Indonesia to transform their
people’s lives through growth and innovation.

Old habits die hard, and giving away power is not something that
politicians tend to do voluntarily.

But the Pakatan government must understand that they will fail to deliver
on the people’s aspirations if they allow Malaysia to continue to be
suffocated by over-centralisation.

In order to address the bread-and-butter issues that affect voters’ lives,
they must abandon the old “one-size-fits-none” approach, and give state and
local governments the freedom to come up with local solutions to fix
problems in accordance with local needs and aspirations.

Just as important, state and local governments must have access to sources
of funding such as sales and income taxes that will rise with economic
growth, rather than being forced to chop down forests and to reclaim
islands from the sea in order to invest in badly-needed infrastructure.

It is then, and only then, that our Malaysia Baharu has any hope of living
up to its full economic promise and potential.




 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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