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Friday, April 29, 2016

Political competition will boost rural development in Sarawak


COMMENT | In Parts 2 to 5 of this series, I’ve highlighted the seriousness of the urban-rural divide in Sarawak. Now I want to shift gears and look at some possible solutions to narrow this urban-rural divide.
We often hear about how Sarawak receives a disproportionate amount of the government’s development expenditure partly because of the size and the relatively backwardness of the state, especially in terms of infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water supply.
For example, the allocation for Sarawak by the federal government under the 10th Malaysia Plan was RM19 billion. Under the 11th Malaysia Plan, the state government has requested for RM35 billion, 64 percent of which will be spent on rural development projects such as water, electricity, roads, school, clinics and agricultural programmes.
But despite these large amounts of development expenditure allocated to Sarawak, many people do not see the impact on the ground, prompting this letter writer to ask the following question: “In the last five years that was the 10MP, how much development was felt by rural Sarawakians?”
Part of the reason why this expenditure is not felt ‘on the ground’ is its slow implementation. For example, out of the 2,643 projects approved for implementation under the 10th MP, only 1,467 or 55.5 percent had been completed by the middle of 2015.
One cannot ignore the possibility that the lack of political competition leading to the lack of urgency is also an important explanatory factor as to the slow implementation of infrastructure projects in rural Sarawak.
For example, the Pan-Borneo highway project had been announced many times but the funding for the project did not materialise until after the 2013 general election. This was when the BN government realised that Sarawak was no longer the fixed deposit it used to be after the opposition won five parliament seats and made inroads into many rural areas.
On a smaller scale, DAP’s Impian Sarawak team has had several encounters where an Impian project was announced in a certain area, only for the government to rush to complete this project before the Impian team could move in.
One such project - the connection of water pipes from the main pipe to the Rumah Gerak Ak Tom longhouse near Betong - was quickly expedited by the Public Works Department (JKR) once it was announced that an Impian project would be carried out at this longhouse. JKR took just five days to complete the water connection project. The longhouse residents had been waiting many years for this connection to be completed.
Not due to a lack of funding
The slow rollout of implementation of these rural infrastructure projects is not due to a lack of funding. At RM8 billion, the budget of the Sarawak state government is two and a half times that of Selangor. The consolidated reserves of the Sarawak state government, at RM27 billion in 2014 (up from RM15 billion in 2010), is nine times that of Selangor.
The problem in Sarawak is that a significant portion of the annual budget as well as its reserves are spent in ways which are less than transparent. For example, over the course of eight budgets, a total of RM11 billion has been spent on one line item in the budget called ‘Government Contributions Towards Approved Agencies Trust Fund’.
There are no details mentioned in the state budgets on which agencies receive these government contributions despite this issue being raised many times in the Sarawak state legislature by my colleague, member of parliament for Kuching and state legislative assemblyperson for Kota Sentosa. Discretion on how to channel these ‘contributions’ is in the hands of the chief minister.
Global Witness, an international NGO, has reported that some of these funds have been used to back big ticket projects such as the Tanjung Manis Halal Hub that is controlled by Norah Abdul Rahman, the first cousin of the former chief minister and now governor of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud.
This kind of misallocation of resources is a double whammy. Firstly, the infrastructure projects that should have been funded gets ignored. Secondly, plans to diversify the state’s economy and broaden its manufacturing base gets hijacked by politically-connected individuals who are usually not qualified to successfully manage these projects.
To overcome this problem, the first step must be to increase transparency in how the state’s resources are being spent. Secondly, there must be greater political competition in the rural areas. One of the main reasons why the state government and the BN representatives in the rural areas have not felt the pressure to improve rural infrastructure significantly is because their political position in these seats have never been threatened.
The MPs and assemblypersons in the rural areas are treated like kings and are feared by the voters. Rural voters are threatened with the withholding of minor rural projects (MRPs) in their areas. With the BN in power in these areas for the better part of 50 years, it is no wonder that some villagers have given up asking for roads to be built or upgraded. Their threats to not vote for the BN candidate are simply not credible.
But if a few rural seats in the upcoming state elections are won by the opposition, then things would change. The BN candidates in the rural areas would be pressured into pushing the state government for the rural development projects to be implemented at a faster rate, at least in the marginal seats.
Coordinated effort to decentralise
Thirdly, there must be an explicit and coordinated effort to decentralise more power to the Sarawak state government so that it can take on more of the responsibilities of improving the rural sector. Right now, the state government can quietly push the responsibility of the urban-rural divide partly to the federal government since it does not have responsibility over areas such as education and healthcare.
Delays in building new schools and hospitals and upgrading old ones, especially in the rural areas can always be pushed back to the federal government. With the expected cuts in federal expenditure due to the weakening economy and low oil prices, this is the perfect time for Sarawak to take back some of these powers for itself and to spend a portion of its accumulated reserves on the rural folks.
To recap, these necessary steps must be taken in order to channel more government spending to the rural areas in Sarawak to decrease the urban-rural divide:
(i) Increase transparency on spending by the state government, especially discretionary expenditure under the chief minister.
(ii) Increase political competition especially in the rural seats.
(iii) Decentralise more power, starting with education and healthcare, to the Sarawak state government. -Mkini

1 comment:

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